In the Spotlight: Storyworthy Holidays with The Moth

By Vanessa Butler

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<p>Six ways to beef up your true stories for the holidays. <br></p>


The Moth has been spinning yarns for a very long time. Not as long as, say, the Greeks or the Romans, but the New York nonprofit has become legendary over the past 17 years for its enthusiastic love of and dedication to the art and craft of storytelling.

Calling on anyone with a true story to share and the guts to tell it in front of a live audience—with no notes!—The Moth has transformed from an informal gathering of friends to an epic event with a cult following.

Since its launch in 1997, The Moth has toured all over the world to collect the most incredible stories for people to perform in front of others, attracting big names from all walks of life, like Run-D.M.C.’s Darryl “D.M.C.” McDaniels, Reverend Al Sharpton and 22nd White House Press Secretary Joe Lockhart, to share their incredible stories along the way.

Artistic Director Catherine Burns talks to us about the art of telling the perfect story and how we can apply some of The Moth’s tried-and-true story workshops to the tales told around the dinner table or punch bowl this holiday season.

Start in the moment. A lot of the best raconteurs or storyteller winners will do this. “It’s 1973, I’m in the first grade and my teacher has just called on me.” It’s very powerful.

One of the basic Moth rules is that in most great stories, there is some sort of a change that takes place in the storyteller’s life. You should ask yourself who you are at the beginning of the story and who you are at the end. Even if it’s just a bit about having an accident on the way to your SATs, something crucial has to have changed. The story will mean more if we know that you’re sort of conflicted about taking the SATs anyway because you’re being pressured by your parents to go to some crazy school you don’t want to go to. At the end, even though you’ve totaled your car, you’re in a lot of trouble and you’ve bombed the SATs, maybe you’re secretly relieved. There’s usually some bigger truth about you in lodged in those anecdotes. And ultimately, when we tell a true story, we’re doing it to reveal something about ourselves. Or we should be; that’s the mark of a great storyteller.

People tend to race through their stories at the same tempo, giving every part of the story the same emphasis. A really simple thing you can do to break your story down is to try to slow down your voice when you come to the big moments in order to really pull those listeners in. When you do that you’re signaling to your audience that what you’re about to say is particularly important. People will tend to lean in to hear that.

Details can bog a story down, so choose them carefully. People tend to throw in way too many details and then it becomes unconvincing, or as they say at The Moth, it “gets a little thick.” The best storytellers only include details that matter at the end of the story. If you’re telling the story about how your friend left their car in first gear when you didn’t drive standard and ended up causing a car to drive over a cliff with you inside, it doesn’t necessarily matter that it happened on a Tuesday and that it was 60 degrees out. It probably does matter that it was raining, it was rush hour and you were disrupting traffic. If you mention in the beginning that it was pouring rain, and then all of a sudden you’re trying to get out of a car that’s standing on its nose in the middle of rush hour traffic, the rain matters. Whereas it doesn’t really matter that you were coming from Philadelphia. People tend to lose listeners in the details.

Another thing that they say at The Moth is “know your first line and know your last line.” People tend to stumble into their stories, especially if they’re telling them socially. People tend to trail off to something like “. . . annnd that’s my story.” Knowing your ending gives you time to have people react with you, as opposed to having people trail off when you trail off. We don’t need to know about the car ride home. End it with you guys standing there high fiving with the cops! End when you’re still in the moment.

Something Burns is lately obsessed with is playing with tenses while telling a story. People tend to tell a story in the past tense, but if you switch to the present tense at the big moment of conflict, it draws people into the narrative with you. So if you’re in a car going over a cliff, it’s very powerful to say, “So me and the car Dukes of Hazzard it and land in the middle of rush-hour traffic.” Saying “landed” takes you out of the big moment. The present tense brings the listener into the story with you; they are there with you in the car as opposed to sitting with you at the dinner table.

If you live in New York you already know that getting a seat at one of their StorySLAMs is a hot ticket, but for those who don’t live in the big city, take a peek inside The Moth’s main stages through their weekly podcast on iTunes or their new App. And pick up their new curated collection The Moth: 50 True Stories! The stories for the collection were handpicked from their 10,000-story-deep archive. Find out more about The Moth at TheMoth.org.


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