First, what is a story slam? “The StorySLAM is a live storytelling competition in the vein of poetry slams organized by The Moth, a non-profit literary society from New York City, since 2001. Storytellers (slammers) have 5 minutes each to tell a story, based on a theme chosen for the event. No notes are allowed: stories must be told and not read. The events, held in cities around the Unites States, now also include a competition; participants are judged by teams of audience members. The organization also holds a biannual Grand Slam competition.” (Source: Wikipedia)
Now, why is this relevant to someone writing personal stories, memoirs or family history? In classes we teach, we often get asked about how to tell a more engaging story, and last year the slam experience gave me some amazing insights after I was coaxed into entering Weber State University’s Story Slam. You know what? It was a game changer in catapulting my storytelling skills forward. Workshop presenter Bill Wight gave participants a roadmap to prepare for a story slam and in a matter of 24 hours I was on stage. Yikes! It was waaaay outside my comfort zone, but I placed 3rd and the story I told became the basis for a video I have used throughout the year in my presentations (see the video at the bottom of this article). The insights stuck with me for good.
This is an updated article with fresh ideas from Wight.
Wight’s workshop was part of the annual Weber State University Storytelling Festival, and he is teaching it again at on Monday, February 26, 2018 at noon. The 2018 Story Slam will be held on Tuesday, February 27 at noon in the Wildcat Theater. The public is welcome to enter. Many of the week’s events are geared to children and elementary school classes, brining in storytellers from around the country, but this is a chance for locals to try it themselves.
Here are some of the best insights from Wight’s workshop and my conversations with him:
- Don’t practice in front of the mirror: One of the most practical tips he gave was this, “When you practice by yourself, you practice ignoring your audience.” Rather than practicing in this approach, Wight urges people to prepare for a story slam with real people.
- Rehearse at least 7 times: By then, “you will be ready.” This is because a big part of storytelling is engaging with the audience and reacting to their reactions.
- Use humor and music: This opens different and more creative channels in your own brain and in the listener.
- Place the scene in the physical world around you: Master storyteller Leeny Del Seamonds suggests creating better imagery by taking the scene out of your head and placing it in the physical world. Envision yourself physically immersed in the scene on all sides.
- Great story slam stories have T.E.M.P.O.: Theme, Entertainment Value, Main Point, Pace, and Ownership. (Keep reading below for explanation).
- Trim your introductions: Don’t waste time setting up the scene, draw your audience right into the heart of your story.
- Stick within the 5-minute time limit: Story slams have a strict 5-minute time limit and you will be penalized for going over, and if you go under you leave time on the table. Practice is key here.
- Do no harm: Never embarrass or hurt someone in telling the story, and never take an audience to an emotionally turbulent place without bringing them safely home.
In a candid chat with Wight, he told me how he recently made a 180-degree career shift, from being a left-brain IT guy to a right-brain storyteller. When he talked about unleashing those creative forces, he really lit up. He shared with me how this transformation helped him also become an inventor and entrepreneur too. One creativity-boosting tip he shared in our conversation was humor, which opens up different channels in the brain. Music works in a similar way.
Wight uses these humor, music and other creativity boosting techniques to boost more productive brainstorming sessions and have better business meetings. There is power in shifting from the the purely cerebral to a feeling of being comfortably relaxed, and engaging all parts of the brain.
Wight also told me how he had a personal breakthrough when he was informally talking with storytelling master Leeny Del Seamonds. He was struggling to paint a rich enough picture for listeners, and asked her advice on how visualize a story’s scene better.
Leeny Del Seamonds suggested that Wight take the scene from out of his head, and place it in the physical world all around him, envisioning himself physically immersed in the scene on all sides. This was a game-changing revelation that made his stories come alive.
Wight does not suggest spelling out every detail, however. Although it might be necessary to tell an audience a story that takes place on a “sailing ship,” to avoid them thinking of a spaceship, storytelling is most effective when details are left to the hearer’s imagination.
Wight also says that storytelling is a wonderful way to deliver insights.
“One of the most amazing privileges of storytelling is the ability to have your characters say things that you – the storyteller – might not be able to say yourself. Words that might sound awkward or too direct coming from you might easily be delivered by one of your story’s characters.”
Stories Need T.E.M.P.O.
Wight guided participants attendees through the important elements of a story, which he refers to as T.E.M.P.O. In other words, a great slam story should have a:
- Theme: The theme for this year’s Story Slam is “Civility.” Wight noted that themes are intentionally vague. “What a lot of people do is they have a favorite story, and then they figure out a way to tie it into that theme,” Wight said.
- Entertainment value: Stories should engage the audience.
- Most Important Thing: Focus on the M.I.T. and and cut out what is superfluous. Wight says this is a “touch point against which all story revisions should be measured.” He also urges storytellers to ask, “What is redeeming about your M.I.T.?” In other words, what valuable bit of insight or wisdom are you hoping to convey to your listeners?
- Pace: Great storytellers know how to hit an emotional note about every minute.
- Ownership: It has to be your story. This means that you don’t ever tell someone else’s story, and also you need to own it, rather than it owning you. By that, Wight said that when you tell it enough you can maintain control over your emotions in the telling.
Related video of Bil Lepp from the 2017 Weber State Storytelling Festival. Lepp is headlining the 2018 festival again.
Do No Harm
Wight said another rule is to “do no harm.” Never embarrass or hurt someone in telling the story, and never take an audience to an emotionally turbulent place without bringing them safely home.
Story slam entrants must also be mindful of the five-minute time limit. He said in initial practice sessions, “you don’t want to be too focused on the time, just set your smartphone timer.” Then, “if it’s not long enough, add a little.” If it’s too long, then focus on the main point.
About this year’s Story Slam theme:
When asked about this year’s theme of Civility, which said, “Although the lack of civility in online exchanges is often cited, I believe that most of us would prefer to be civil in our exchanges – even online. But we don’t know how to adapt our language to respond to toxic posts. I’m hoping that some of this year’s stories will highlight interchanges in which a courageous participant found a way to “civilize” the conversation in the face of offensive tactics.”
Finally, I want to share one of my favorite storytelling resources of all time. The wonderful book Long Story Short by Margot Leitman – a comedian and winner of multiple Moth storytelling competitions. She also founded the Upright Citizens Brigade storytelling program. I have listened to the audio version multiple times and found her take on storytelling to be practical and funny. She really is a master of the craft, delivering the nuts and bolts of telling a crowd-pleasing story. As a writer of family stories, her tips were wonderfully useful and I can’t recommend her book highly enough.
A delightful way to try live storytelling
The Story Slam workshop itself was a delightfully interactive way for a beginner to prepare for a story slam. If someone had told me I’d be asked to come up with a story on the spot and share it with a partner, I might have said, “No thanks, not me.” I can get a little deer-in-the-headlights when asked to think on my feet, but by the end I was having enough fun to actually consider putting together a story in time for the Slam the very next day. That might be crazy, but Wight motivated me to try it. Through his practical exercises, I learned to focus on the main point, trim my introduction and get right to the heart of it. Over the next 24 hours I rehearsed as many times and in front of as many people as I could and the next day I put on some lipstick and entered the competition.
If you are curious, here is the video based on my Story Slam tale from Weber State University’s 2017 Story Slam:
Rhonda Lauritzen is the founder and an author at Evalogue.Life – Tell Your Story. Rhonda lives to hear and write about people’s lives, especially the uncanny moments. She and her husband Milan restored an old Victorian in Ogden and work together, weaving family and business together. Check out her latest book Remember When, the inspiring Norma and Jim Kier story.OGDEN, Utah, February 27, 2017 by Rhonda Lauritzen, Author and Founder at Evalogue.Life
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