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.