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)

How will this help family storytelling?

Now, why is this relevant to writing personal stories, memoirs or family history? In classes, we are often asked how to tell a more engaging story. Last year I gained 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. 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.

Click for printable of questions Everyone Should Ask

Insights to Prepare for a Story Slam

Wight’s workshop was part of the annual Weber State University Storytelling Festival. Here are some of the best insights from Wight’s workshop and my conversations with him.

  1. Don’t practice in front of the mirror: Wight said, “When you practice by yourself, you practice ignoring your audience.” Instead,  he urges people to prepare for a story slam with real people.
  2. 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.
  3. Use humor and music: This opens different and more creative channels in your own brain and in the listener.
  4. Place the scene in the physical world around you: Master storyteller Leeny Del Seamonds suggests creating better imagery by placing the scene in the physical world. Envision yourself physically immersed in the scene on all sides. 
  5. Great story slam stories have T.E.M.P.O.: Theme, Entertainment Value, Main Point, Pace, and Ownership. (Keep reading below for explanation).  
  6. Trim your introductions: Don’t waste time setting up the scene. Draw your audience right into the heart of your story.
  7. Stick within the 5-minute time limit: Story slams have a strict 5-minute time limit. You will be penalized for going over, but if you go under you leave time on the table. Practice is key here.
  8. Do no harm:  Never embarrass or hurt someone in telling the story. If the story is emotionally turbulent, always bring your audience safely home. 
ad for courses showing a blank notebook

Giving Creativity a Boost

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.

Related story: Music and Memory 

Wight uses humor, music and other creativity 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. 

Learning from a Legend

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 to 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.” 

Related: Storyteller Kim Weitkamp: To teach, tell a story

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. 
Click to download Free Tool Kit for Writers

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. 

Stick to the time limit

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. 

Related: What is the theme in writing your story?

About that year’s Story Slam theme

When asked about this year’s theme of Civility, Wight 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.”

Long Story Short

Finally, I want to share one of my favorite storytelling resources of all time. That is the wonderful book Long Story Short by Margot Leitman. She’s 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. 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. 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. If someone had told me I’d be asked to come up with a story on the spot to share, I might have said, “No thanks, not me.” I can get a little deer-in-the-headlights when asked to think on my feet. However, 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 sound crazy, but Wight motivated me to try it. 

Related: Oral History – The easiest, most rewarding way to finish a story

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. The next day I put on some lipstick and entered the competition.

If you are curious, here is the video based on my tale from Weber State University’s 2017 Story Slam: 

Bill Wight is a storyteller and coach at TalkWorx in Kingsport, Tennessee or you can check him out at Facebook @talkworx 

Rhonda Lauritzen is the founder and an author at Evalogue.Life – Tell Your Story. Rhonda lives to hear and write about people’s lives. She believes that when you tell your story, it changes the ending., She and her husband Milan restored an 1890 Victorian in Ogden. She especially enjoys unplugging in nature. Check out her books: How to Storyboard, and Every Essential Element. Most recently she was the writing coach of bestselling author, Rob A. Gentile, who wrote Quarks of Light, A Near-Death Experience: What I Saw That Opened My Heart.

Disclaimer: This page contains affiliate links which means if you purchase some of the products we mention by using our links, we make a commission. Be assured that I’m only sharing the methods I actually use, but I do appreciate when you buy with my links because it helps fund articles like this one.

Do a family history interview

Sign up and we will email you a free, printable download of our mini-course to conduct a great oral history interview. You will be done in a week or less.

Powered by ConvertKit