Stubborn Dreams

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Posts Tagged ‘winning

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