How to win a storytelling contest

Anxiously awaiting The Moth Story Slam.
Anxiously awaiting The Moth Story Slam.

The answer is so simple you might miss it. In the world of competitive storytelling, and don’t focus too much on that word “competitive,” do you know what makes the biggest difference. I had it confirmed for me when I went Friday to The Moth Story Slam in Seattle and on Tuesday to the Bainbridge Island Story Slam.

The secret is simple, but people focus on so many other things.

It’s the story.

On Friday night I went for the first time to an event put on by The Moth and I was giddy to be there. I’ve listened to the show for a few years and am not often disappointed by what I hear. Most of the recordings the put out on the podcast and on the radio, however, are from their Main Stage events. Those stories have more time to develop. A story slam speech is a five-minute performance.

Let me downplay the word “performance.” On Friday I saw people there amping up their presentations with gestures and awkwardly spoken phrases meant to elicit a connection and it got in the way of the story. The performance was distracting. I saw some of that Tuesday night as well. It’s something that in the past I also spent too much energy on.

On Friday there were two stories that I thought stood out above the other eight. Based on the judges’ scores, they agreed, and I don’t think third place was very close. Either one of the top two could have won and I would have been satisfied.

One of the key elements for me was that neither speaker tried to “sell” their stories and neither of them were acting. The second-place speaker seemed slightly more rehearsed than the winner, but not nearly as much as others that night. The thing that made each of them stand out was the compelling nature of their stories. The theme for the night was “Taboo” and each delivered a different tone. The second-place storyteller offered a heartfelt telling of her time working for a Catholic organization helping kids with behavioral problems. The winner was a Jewish man talking about his first experience with pork, and it was funny. It wasn’t stand-up comedy, but if it had been the storyteller might not have won.

After I left the event on Friday I realized that the stories the top two contenders told were stories would have been the best in written form, too. If we all had to read those stories the top two would have been the same. It was the content that drove the prize. The same was true Tuesday on Bainbridge. The winner’s story was far and away the best. She delivered it well, but the story was so compelling she didn’t have to rely on tricks.

Earlier when I said to downplay the word “competitive,” I meant it. I have participated in the Bainbridge Island Story Slam three times and not once have I landed in the top three. And yet I consider each event a triumph for me, because I’m getting better at this. It’s a training ground. The next time I go back I will spend most of my preparation time crafting and editing the story, then working on the presentation.

I suppose that a skilled telling can make a bad story better and that a bad telling can make a good story worse. But if your story is good, all you really have to do is remember it, and tell it casually. I suppose performance has its place, but it means far less than you might think.

What’s the future of this here site and why are you doing this?

This is what happens when baseball gets rained out in Tacoma. The whole city blows up.
This is what happens when baseball gets rained out in Tacoma. The whole city blows up.

You may ask yourself, why a story night? Maybe you don’t, but I’m telling you anyway.

Several years ago I wrote a short essay called “Jane.” It sat on my blog for years and years, just sitting there doing nothing. I thought it was a good story, but I didn’t really have any way to get it told elsewhere.
Continue reading What’s the future of this here site and why are you doing this?

All about story night 10/2/2014

Let’s talk about Story Night in Manette on Thursday, Oct. 2, 2014.

First, what you probably already know because you have seen the flyer is that it will be at 7:30 p.m. at the Manette Saloon at 2113 E 11th St,  in Bremerton.

You probably also know that your story must be true, can be no longer than five minutes and should be within the theme, “Schooled.”

One other rule: NO NOTES!!! You must tell your story freefalling without a net. Don’t worry, you will make mistakes, probably. We all will.

Do you want to do well at your talk? There will be PRIZES for the best stories, you know. I thought this online collection of hints had good ideas. It’s aimed more at people making workplace presentations, so you can ignore the part about data and anything related to slideshows. You won’t have the ability to do a PowerPoint!

In a few days I’ll post examples of stories I thought were well done. They might be longer than 10 minutes, but it should give you something to aim for.

Even if you don’t tell a story that night, there might be something there for you besides a night of entertainment. There will be at least one prize for a member of the audience. You will find out about that when you get there.

If you would like to tell a story or would like more information, send an email to info@spillyourgutsguts.com or leave a comment here.

By the way, the story night will help launch a new podcast called “Spill Your Guts’ Guts.” Each episode will be posted here.

We look forward to hearing your story!

What frightens you more? Public speaking or huge dogs?

 

Newman!
Newman!

This dog was a pup in this picture still and even smaller when my wife first started watching him. Should you be afraid of him? Probably only of getting knocked over. He’s a sweetheart but like all big dogs I’ve ever known he doesn’t realize how large he is.

Let’s start with a joke. Well, technically this isn’t starting, because I gave you one paragraph about Newman. But let’s not quibble. The joke, from Jerry Seinfeld:

“According to most studies, people’s number one fear is public speaking. Number two is death. Death is number two. Does that sound right? This means to the average person, if you go to a funeral, you’re better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.”

This site doesn’t dismiss the funniness of Seinfeld’s joke, but says that perception is not quite accurate. Because, really, would people rather die than speak in public? No. It’s just that speaking in public is something that is more likely to happen to you than death, which for most of us only happens once. So you don’t go around fearing that someone is going to kill you. Instead you’re afraid some mugger is going to come up to you on the street and force you to give an Amway presentation.

Here’s the thing; the fear of public speaking is something we can all overcome, mostly by doing it. Years ago I decided that I wanted to be good at public speaking, so I took nearly every opportunity I could to practice speaking in front of an audience. For years I had this issue when I first started, that for the first 30 seconds I was so nervous I had trouble breathing. Once I got through that, I was fine. So I figured out a way to make it through that brief period until I was breathing normally again, and then I would continue on with my speech. Now I don’t have that 30 seconds of oxygen deprivation anymore. 

So if you like the idea of telling your story, but you’re afraid your nervousness is something that paralyzes you , take comfort in knowing that you can overcome this. I have only ever seen one person die from giving a speech, so the odds of it happening to you are pretty slim.