Stubborn Dreams

Getting out of my cube

How to win a StorySlam or GrandSlam

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Ryan Barlow being crowned as Philly's best storyteller 2008

Ryan Barlow being crowned

What makes a story win?

I had the honor of competing yesterday in First Person Art’s 2008 GrandSlam at the Painted Bride in Philly because I was confident and comfortable enough back in April to tell a signature story well. I believe the level of competition at this GrandSlam was better than last years (and the venue rocked – made us feel like stars for the event – thank you Painted Bride for being great hosts).

I’ll admit I was a bit preoccupied with preparing for the GrandSlam, and some of that pre-competition preparation and nerves wasn’t helpful.

Based on my crackpot analysis of last night’s competition, the stories told at Juliet’s post-party (one by The Moth’s GrandSlam (NYC) winner Jim O’Grady), previous StorySlams, stories I overhear on in public (you get the idea – I love hearing stories), I believe that a winning story/storyteller has these characteristics:

#1 Tell a specific story, not your life story

The thing about storytelling is anyone can tell a 30-minute or even 10-minute story. To tell a 5-minute story, that is a particular constraint that forces you to be concise and focused. If you spend 30 seconds rambling at the start (or worse, midway through), you’ve lost 10% of the time!

The classic Toastmasters rule is that you can make 3 points in a 5-7 minute speech. Well, StorySlam ain’t Toastmasters. If you attempt to make 3 points by the mistake of 3 or even 2 little stories – you’ll be watering down the whole effect of the story. By attempting to go into separate stories, you’re forcing the audience to do extra overhead/keep track (whether consciously or subconsciously) of “where is the storyteller headed”. And you’re sacrificing time – details that could make or break your story might have to be watered down or worse – eliminated completely. Don’t tell 3 stories, don’t tell your life story, tell one story. Tell your signature story. Ingrid had a difficult story, in a sense, too because of the setup required (explaining the whole reality show business from an insider view), and she did well.

For the contest, I made the mistake of attempting to tell the “Kevin November 2008” story – e.g. a snapshot of my life. With broad themes, no particular details. As Kendra told me afterwards, she didn’t think people understood the story. (it didn’t help I didn’t realize I wasn’t speaking into the mike, until I spoke into the mike late) Maybe because it was about my life (I don’t claim to understand my life!)

#2 Entertain the audience

Katonya told a story that was part of a tapestry/a life narrative. It was poetic and took us on an emotional journey. It made us think. But it did not make us laugh. There have been winning stories at StorySlams that were not funny (Ben Drinen’s comes to mind) but to my recollection, the full house consistently beats a straight (all thing considered, the entertaining story will beat the somber story). As Juliet told me prior to the competition, people are paying money and choosing to spend their Saturday night there, to see you (in theory) perform. They’re not there to be confronted with the dark side of life – they’re there to show their friends how fun/cool StorySlams is. It’s ok to have a somber portion to your story, as long as you balance it out (sandwich funny-somber-funny). Ryan’s story convincingly managed to turn something that could be told in a pretty scary context (getting conned) into a forget-what-the-Dow-did-last-week-last-month-last-quarter 5-minute laughing escape. Good StorySlam stories can be summarized in three sentences but that is only a skeleton – the actual telling, the energy, the vibe, the commitment, the in-the-momentness, the presentation is key.

#3 Commit to the story / be the story

Ted, Ryan, and Kendra really got into their stories. Each of them got so in to their stories that they carried the audience along with them. Katonya got into her story but I could sense a tension (as in, we didn’t know if she was going to drop a bomb on us – e.g. nervous).

I loved how Ted took us to India almost in the terms of a B-horror movie (oh, no, he didn’t; don’t go there). Kendra took us along with her actually-pretty-scary but funny drug blackout episode. Ryan had the symptoms of a great storyteller – pacing, vocal variety, even pauses for dramatic effect – but I think the source was he just got 100% into it. The difference between reading a story and hearing a story is someone telling a story gives life to it.

Usually, at the StorySlams the winning story is a tangible notch better than the other ones. At the GrandSlam, the top three were so close I’m wondering if the very important adding needed auditing (sorry, Andrew 🙂 ) The top three all gave it their all – and the best storyteller of the night won.

#4 Be true to yourself

This is more intangible. As Ingrid says, the person on stage is not necessarily you – it is a persona. A truely good story reveals a bit of yourself, maybe without even stating it. All personas aren’t fake just as all good fiction is grounded in reality.

#5 Follow the theme

A single story that fits the theme. That’s it. Don’t overcomplicate things. And, as Juliet advised me, please to try to avoid saying ‘I was the chump’ or ‘that was the winning moment’ (we’re all smart enough to realize when your story fits the theme). As an aside, It goes without saying – do not thank the audience (that could be construed as pandering even if its sincere) – you will thank them by giving your best story. The end to Ryan’s story (don’t want to give it away) was a great example of nailing the theme – not too contrived, subtle. In my story, I did attempt to tie the opening to the closing (as all good stories I believe do) but my opening (‘what is a life’) actualy didn’t have anything really to do with the theme. Juliet’s story that won the GrandSlam last year (2007) was superb – her closing brought us back to the beginning of the story, literally ‘in a tightly-wrapped’ package.

#6 Tell a story like a “professional”* storyteller

At Juliet’s post-party, I was fortunate enough to stick around (it was late) and hear Jim O’Grady tell a story. Since Juliet introduced him as not only a winner in the Moth StorySlams but the winner of the Moth GrandSlam, there was a pretty high expectation set for him. He delivered to expectations, of course. Makes me want to schedule a trip up to NYC to see The Moth live (but it’s on weekdays). I think the way he told the story was professional – in fact, I think he could probably go off his daily routine/shopping list and make it into an interesting story. A sense of feeling. How it all flowed together smoothly. His use of details. His unhurried, confident delivery. I particularly liked his metaphor of a particularly brute way of male bonding – how if you fight someone, you will have a bond that is indelible and different (from the normal smalltalk -> friend passage).

* – I don’t think there are many professional storytellers (it’s too much of a pure skill) but there are many who are able to use their storytelling skill in their profession and business.

Resources: The Moth (NYC)

“But in that year of trying and sometimes failing but always studying how the winners moved or thrilled or cracked up an audience, I started to figure out how to compose and perform an effective five-minute story.” -Jim O’Grady

“Gather Round, City Folk. Here’s a Storyteller’s Tale”, NYTimes, 11.16.08 – Article by Jim O’Grady relating his 1.5 year journey from storyteller debutante to reigning GrandSlam champion

The Moth (NYC) Podcast – These stories are not only entertaining and good but they can teach you about what makes a good story (through your own personal filter, which is important)

So what I would have done differently?

I’m glad I was picked first. It let me relax and enjoy all of the other stories. But, if I had foresight, I would have told a single story. I would have written it out and tuned it for maximum comedic punch – make every sentence count (as Juliet advises). I would have practiced. Before the competition, I wrote a composite story about my years-long quest to be the dancer – ala Pulp Fiction. But it was a composite. The story I should have told: the one about my friend Jorge and me walking by Washington Square park – that could have been a contender.

Written by kleeruby1

November 17, 2008 at 3:22 am

8 Responses

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  1. Excellent observations, Kevin. Your self-deprecating style is one that novice judges may have a hard time understanding. I was talking with another storyteller and we agreed that if other storytellers were the judges, you’d have scored much higher. Maybe something we’ll consider next year.


    November 17, 2008 at 3:02 pm

  2. Kevin, I don’t think it was your STORY people didn’t understand, I think it is your GENIUS they didn’t understand. I love how you tell stories, how you get the audience to sympathize with your (lack of) comfort zone. The judges didn’t see in you what WE see in you, that’s for sure.



    November 17, 2008 at 4:01 pm

  3. Hmm. Thanks for the clarification, Kendra. And the comments about judging, Andrew.

    The audience is there to hear good stories and be entertained. Otherwise, they could watch a on-demand rerun of “Mad Men” (which I have not seen) and be entertained. As long as they hear good stories, I think they will be satisfied. Are they there to judge as well?

    Picking audience members as judges helps engage them (and works well). That works well at the monthly StorySlams. However, there is a recurrent calibration problem while the judges realize their bearings (if the best story (observed in retrospect)) went first – it’s unlikely they would have won). One way to get around the calibration issue is to have past winners (Ryan, Juliet) be the judges (aside from their bias; Juliet’s “Boooo!” 🙂 ). Another is to have the judges be pre-qualified; I believe at the first GrandSlam – there were VIP/invited judges who had the qualification that they seemed to be/were in the business of writing and communication (marketing). That seemed to work well. Since the stakes are pretty high at the GrandSlam, maybe it’s best to have a jury of qualified judges that understand what to look for (any maybe have been briefed). But keep the random audience judges at the monthlies (it’s a wild-card factory kind of like the ‘order fastest’ from ABC’s Who Wants to be a Millionaire’ that determined who got to sit in the hot seat).

    I’m happy with the low scores I received because even if I killed that story (which I did not – presentation) – I don’t think I would have placed in the top 3 (because of content). That being said, I think if you really want to win, you can increase your odds dramatically by preparing (as long you don’t get picked to go first 🙂 )


    November 17, 2008 at 4:43 pm

  4. When all is said and done, I think most of the crowd booed your scores, so just think of it as winning the popular vote and losing the electoral vote (which nobody likes anyway).

    Ryan T. Barlow

    November 17, 2008 at 9:52 pm

  5. Kevin, what a way to wrap it up! I was not at the after party (should have gone, it was in my hood, but the night pulled me in a different direction).
    Someone who said they came down from NYC recognized me as one of the competitors while I stood outside Race Street Cafe (might it have been this amazing O’Grady?) and we chatted for a while. He said he was surprised by my choice to go serious, but that he appreciated it and that the story stuck with him, which was really cool. Honestly, I’ve told funny and outrageous before and I just was ready to tell the story that I did, as I’ve never really told it, outloud or on the page, before. F-U, Zoo Horse Keeper! Haha, JK.JK. No, really.

    Any-who, you summed it up well. I’m a writer who stumbled into Story Slamming as a way of getting myself out there (First Person ROCKS, seriously, for having the monthly events).
    The best part for me, truly, was hanging with such a great crowd of storytellers. I am honored to stand among you.


    November 17, 2008 at 11:40 pm

  6. Kevin: I love you and even though I’m not at the height of my profundity, I had to write right now. In the very near future, I will search your writing for signs of Katonya-adoration that I might have missed.

    For now . . . I wish I could have heard the stories better. I could hear jack where I was. I heard Donald, but he admittedly had nothing to say. Hilarious.

    You made me breathe, Kev. Before the show and during your story. Room 223 in my heart, reserved for you.

    I agree about the formula, and I challenge the formula. I haven’t been able to make my communication style fit into it in a winning way that feels clean afterward. And this is a key element of my persona: I don’t quite fit in. So people want the funny show, and I show up with love instead of laughter. And my definition of love leaves room for cursing out the judges for scoring based on the formula. And that’s funny as hell. To me. (Study Paul Mooney) I’m psyched about winning Best Presentation and not quite knowing what that means. My presentation was not what seems to win these things.

    I’m about cracking the game wide open. Keeping the bar out of reach.

    I offer that I consider storytelling to be performance art. That’s where I’m at right now. And winning for me is about how well I play that role. My persona loves people by stomping their egos, and they love it more than my sweetness, and they want to nurse. My persona comes up from under, and, after the show, people tell me how I should have won. How I’ve been robbed. That is successful to me. Nothing to do with the crown. Wouldn’t have fit over my tignon.

    I was authentic, and I’m really happy that I went that way. I didn’t write, memorize, or rehearse. I thought about who I was. Meditated on that. I was open and responsive to the audience’s energy. As people get to know me, they find humor all over the dry honesty. They need to listen, though. If I showed up funny and linear all the time, they would never learn about me or people like me or what they have in common with us. And why would I teach them about some other chick when I’m the one who wants the attention?

    If they can laugh @ an hysterical child and cry over pizza, they can be down with me.

    Word up, Angelita! Who’s Kleeruby1?


    November 20, 2008 at 3:09 am

  7. Katonya,

    > I was authentic, and I’m really happy that I went that way. I didn’t write, memorize, or rehearse. I thought about who I was. Meditated on that.
    I think that’s what we all love (and fear a little, to be real) about you!

    Thanks for the spur-of-the-moment-essay-in-a-comment. I need to start learning how to rhyme beyond Roses are Red so I can start hitting up a poetry slam or too.

    Make it a great day,


    November 20, 2008 at 4:05 pm

  8. Hey Kevin! (Explorer just shut down on me, and I’m wondering whether it’s to stop me from procrastinating @ some work my mom needs done. For context.)

    “What is life?” My kind of question.

    I felt and enjoyed your authenticity. I think I was responding to my own assumption that emulating winning performances means sacrificing those unique subtleties of your (and other storytellers’) performances that I so love. I rethought it almost immediately after posting my comment. I’m beyond willing to see it proven false, especially by yours truly. But I put the question out there . . .

    “I’m not a very outgoing person.” First line in your Awkward Pause story, as I remember it. Your life-story treatment of the theme, plus your embodiment of the theme, plus the sense that you were at home with your listeners, won the ticket. Sure, the world owes me for my tragic life and distorted heritage, sure. But props were due to your brilliance.

    And I give props to Ted & Ryan for their performances. They were awesome, straight up and down. The unreachable bar for me is across-the-board high scores, like theirs, for whatever honesty flies out of my face. I guess I have some difficulty accepting that judges need laughter. And I own my responsibility for making the joy throughout the journey obvious to everyone.

    I laughed out loud at the fear part (thanks for sharing that!) and I received the love and respect. Thank you(/y’all). I could have beaten a judge down for each of the eight of you who didn’t get a “Best . . . .” For example, I feel like I know Ingrid well enough to say that, if she told a 7-minute story, she would walk away with a judge’s house and mate; and she would give one of them to me. I may be wrong, but, believing this, I could stomp somebody’s throat (in my mind) on her behalf.

    Who is this outspoken woman I find myself playing? And now I’m learning that I’m a poet.


    November 21, 2008 at 2:44 am

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