So You Want to Be a Storyteller?

Really? Even if people won’t want to date you ever again for fear that you’ll one day talk about them on stage? You’re sure?

Okay. Welcome aboard.

Here’s a cheap glass of wine. Where we’re going, you’ll need it.

I’ve got to tell you – I think you’ve picked a great time to get into the story game. I mean, with the success of storytelling podcasts like The Moth, RISK!, Definitely Not the Opera, Snap Judgement and This American Life millions of people are now aware of the phenomenon of modern storytelling. Just about every city in North America now has a regular storytelling event, and there seems to be more opportunities for storytellers than ever before. For raconteurs like us, the getting has never been good-er.

But before you start speaking your heart into the crackly microphone at the local roti place’s storytelling event (at which no one is there to actually hear stories [they’re just there for the roti]), there’s a few things we need to talk about.

Firstly: Storytelling is magic. It is capable of changing people’s lives in a way that few other forms of expression can. A well-told story will make a room laugh as one, cry as one, breathe as one. It can bring people together in a way that almost nothing else can. It is truly a special thing.

Alternately, storytelling is also capable of being the fucking worst.

Being held captive by a terrible, meandering, long-winded, self-indulgent piece of shit story is worse than anything imaginable. When a bad storyteller is at the mic spinning their self-satisfied yarn, weaving in and out of tangents that lead nowhere, there is nothing more painful to sit through. Your blood pressure rises. Your eyes roll so far back they might never come back.  You’re stuck in your seat helplessly longing for a happier time – like the time you were on hold with your cellphone provider and a knife hit you in the eyeball.  You’re a hostage! You’re THIS GUY!

And unfortunately, pretty much every storytelling event will have at least one hostage-taking situation a night (if we’re lucky), and I don’t want you to ever be the one at the microphone when it happens. 

That’s why I’m here to help.

When you tell a story onstage at your next live event, I want you to crush it. And if you let this advice sink in, I promise that you will.

1) If you’re running long, you’d better be KILLING, buddy.

Thing I’ve never thought after a story: “I wish that story went longer

All storytelling events have time limits. Most are 10 minutes. And I’m telling you, if you’re going to be a storyteller, keeping your stories within the time limit is the single most important thing you can do when you are starting out. Because it will make the producers trust you and like you and want to invite you back. Not only that, but learning how to make the required cuts will make you a better writer, it will make the audience more comfortable and your story will be WAY stronger. Trust me. The worst stories are ALWAYS the longest. ALWAYS. Because who tells a story that goes way over the time-limit? Someone who doesn’t think our time is valuable. Time it. TIME IT. FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, TIME IT. I would rather sit through a 10-minute piece of shit than listen to a middling story that runs 5 minutes over the limit. Because the 10-minute story had more respect for its audience.

2) Outline.

You don’t need to write out the whole story, but you do need to have a road map. Some of my favourite storytellers like Martin Dockery and Peter Aguero don’t write down their stories at all because they are freaks of nature. BUT! That doesn’t mean that they don’t know exactly where they’re taking us. Know your structure. Know where and why and for how long you’re taking us. Basic story structure is a beautiful thing.

  1. SET THE SCENE
  2. INCITE INCIDENT
  3. RAISE THE STAKES
  4. CLIMAX
  5. DENOUEMENT

Know exactly what your story is about. Then, get your Michelangelo on, and chisel away everything that isn’t David.

3) Punch it up. 

There’s always a more unique and interesting way of saying things.

How happy were you that week?

“When I walked down the street that week, my gait looked like end-zone dance.”

How did you feel when you told her that you loved her for the first time?

“Vulnerable. Like I was bungee-jumping naked over shark-infested waters while being broadcast live on TMZ.”

Find a way of saying things that no other human except you would come up with. Be a snowflake who marches to the beat of your own synth.

4) That opening sentence or two is crucial.

Get us! Grab us! Right now! As soon as possible – and by whatever means necessary. Whether by using a joke or a cryptic hint or a surprise or by simply taking us to the opening scene as quickly as possible. Have an opening line that makes us put down our phones and lean in.

You might not suspect from looking at me, but I lead a double life.”

Every family has secrets. In my family, the secret was me.”

It was one of those breakups where all of your stuff ends up in trash bags and you have 5 minutes to find a new apartment and once you do, the last thing you want to do is unpack those trash bags because they contain a lot of raw emotion.”

5) Oh, there’s a moral? Yeah. We know.

I’ve seen so many storytellers totally stick the landing on the climax, but then instead of winking at the judges and walking away triumphantly, they will inexplicably start ham-fisting their way through the moral(s) of the story. Dude! You were so close!

Tying a nice bow to the end of the story can sometimes be the exact right thing to do. But if you do, just keep it clean, concise, and make sure you’re giving us something that we haven’t already deduced on our own.

Remember:

  • Storytelling audiences are the smartest. They get it.
  • Different people will take different things away from your story – and that’s okay. Don’t tell them what to take away because all stories are about multiple things.

Remember at the end of Full House when Uncle Jesse and Uncle Joey would sit next to Michelle on the bed as the cheesy music swelled and they’d teach her about all the life lessons she’d learned from the episode we just watched? Don’t do that.

Just give Kimmy Gibbler one last zinger and hit the music.

6) Don’t get hung up on the theme.

Lots of storytelling events have a monthly theme. I always love reading what the upcoming themes are because very often a theme will dislodge a long-forgotten story from the back of my brain. “Oh yeah. I DO have a story about GARBAGE.

The unfortunate side-effect of themed events is that lots of storytellers feel the need to explain to us in excruciating detail why their story is appropriate for the theme. Or they’ll tell us the story of how they decided which story to tell us, “When I first heard that the theme this week was Freedom, I thought of blank, blank and blank.”  JUST TELL US THE STORY!

The theme will be a dot and your story will be a dot and then we’ll connect them with our minds.

7) Sometimes it’s too soon.

I’m guilty of making this mistake before. All of my favourite stories are always ones of pain and finding the light in life’s darker moments. Sometimes as a storyteller, we’ll be going through something very challenging and will want to take it to the stage – like losing a loved one or having our heart broken or surviving a trauma. If you’re taking it to the stage, though, remember: It’s very difficult to paint a picture of a whale when you’re still trapped in its belly.  Make sure you’re in a solid emotional place and you’re recollecting from a safe distance if you’re talking about the tough stuff. A good rule:

If you’re not ready to laugh about it, then we’re not ready to be sad about it.

8) Keep it fresh.

One of the biggest challenges of being a storyteller or comedian is that you have to take this thing that you’ve obsessed over, written down, rehearsed, outlined, said hundreds of times and then make it seem spontaneous and off-the-cuff every night. One trick that I find helpful when I’m running a story alone or with a friend is that I’ll challenge myself to tell the same story using slightly different language each time. Sprinkle in a few moments where you have to grasp for the words. Have a different way of describing the smell of the car every time. Set some booby traps for yourself along the way so that you’re forced to think on your feet in the present moment.

Sometimes when I’m trying to find the 20th new way to describe the smell of the car, is when I’ll find the perfect one and keep it.

9) “Look ‘em in the eye and speak from the heart.” -Louis CK

Storytelling has one gimmick: Heart. Use yours.

Be vulnerable with us.

10) Become a story aficionado.

Thousands of the best stories you’ve ever heard in your life are available. FOR FREE. RIGHT NOW. The Moth storytelling archives are staggeringly good. Listen to: This American Life, DNTO, RISK! and Snap Judgement. They’re all free. FREE!  Listen to as many as you can.  Listen to brilliant storytellers like Mike Birbiglia and Tig Notaro and Elna Baker and Adam Wade. Dismantle their stories. Why was this one so effective, and this one not so much?

Become a student of the game.

11) Pet peeves and things to avoid.

My friend Peter Aguero has hosted his fair share of story events in New York and has probably heard more live stories than anyone I know. So I asked him for some of the things that irk him as a listener. Here’s what he said:

I don’t like when someone strings together a series of representative anecdotes to make a point in trying to tell their whole life story in 10 minutes. Everything ends up on the surface and there’s no detail. They end up not telling us ten stories instead of telling one.

I cringe at the phrase “…and in that moment, I realized…” – I don’t know why, I just hate it.

I don’t like when people say, “if you’re not familiar with (whatever), it’s (explanation). Just explain it or don’t. Asking rhetorical questions reminds the listener that they’re listening to a story. It takes me out of it. You were going to explain it anyway, just explain the thing

True dat.

To add to Peter’s list, here are a few of my own:

Defining words in a reading-from-the-dictionary-type fashion makes us feel like we’re at a commencement address or like the bride’s childhood best friend is at the mic. Steer clear.

Soapboxing is the worst. We’re here for stories, not to hear you plagiarize a conspiracy theory website.

The microphone is your friend. Talk into it. If your voice sounds loud, that’s good – it means it’s working.

Know how to ride a laugh. Let the whole laugh happen before you continue. You’re doing great.

Never start by saying “My story is…” or end with “That’s my story”.

12) Some tips from the PROS.

I asked a few of my most accomplished story buds for wisdom that they’d like to pass on to storytellers who are just starting out. Here’s what they said:

Kevin Allison; Creator/Host of RISK! Podcast

Zero in on an especially emotional moment you had and begin to reconstruct what you recall seeing, hearing, thinking and feeling.

TJ Dawe; Legendary Canadian Monologuist

Make your story specific. You might want to make it general, so that people will relate to it. Strangely enough, the more grounded it is in the specifics of your life, the more universal it will become. 
 
Don’t be afraid to be vulnerable. Your weaknesses, your failures, your sillinesses, your anxieties, your contradictions, your self-sabotage – this is the stuff of good stories. 
 
If your natural conversational rhythm is fast, pauses are your friend. And vice versa. 
 

Be willing to cut a good line, or a good paragraph, or a good story altogether, if it isn’t working, or if it doesn’t add to the whole. The fact that you wrote it, and that it was hard to write isn’t justification enough to keep something. You’re not in this to avoid work. 

Watch and listen to the audience. You’ll learn from every audience. Their laughter will cue you. Their silence in dramatic parts will cue you. Their restlessness and inattention will cue you. A good solo performance isn’t a monologue, it’s a conversation with the audience. 
 
Notice which incidents in your life you keep thinking about, or telling friends about. There’s probably something there that reflects what you’re going through now. 
Use contractions when you write. Don’t dress up your sentences in Sunday clothes. Talk the way you normally talk. 
 
Have a specific person in mind when you create. Develop your material with that one person in mind. It could be a friend. It could be your partner. It could be someone you wish was your partner. It could be one of your parents. It could be you. It could be a younger version of you who might have needed to hear this. People can be fabulously expressive in an email, because they know exactly who they’re talking to, and they calibrate their vocabulary and sense of humour and references to that person. And they often become vague and general and clunky when trying to write something for an audience of everyone in the world. 

James Gangl; Canadian Comedy Award-Winner; Moth StorySLAM Champion

Write as if no one will ever read your work. When I write like this, I stop worrying about my work being good or bad; I just write. I go for quantity over quality. I like to write fast, write forward and I don’t look back until my first draft is done. Quality will come in the edit.

Write stuff that you plan on burning later. When I hit upon a subject that scares the shit out of me, then I know I have something worthy of writing. Write stuff that scares you… that’s where the gold lies.

Tell the story as if you’re speaking to your friend in a bar. No pretention. No gimmicks. The simplest way from point A to B will become the bones of your piece. The rest is just window dressing and if you have a good enough story it will support all kinds of fun dressing.

Martin Dockery; Award-winning monologuist, Moth Mainstage Performer

Just to get up on stage and do it. And do it as often as possible. It’s the only way to get a sense of how to tell a story, how to find your authentic voice, how to judge pace, timing, and impact. Every single time I’m on stage I learn something, even now, more than a decade into doing it.

***

And that’s it. That’s pretty much all the wisdom I (and my story buds) can think of.

And y’know what?

You’re going to be great.

Lucky for us, storytelling audiences are the warmest, kindest, best-est audiences of them all. They came to listen. To you. You don’t have to fight to get them or win them over or trick them into listening to you. They’re already on your side as soon as you walk up to the microphone. You have their undivided attention.

Don’t waste it.

Sam Mullins Show Image