Wherever you actually are, I want you visualize that you are in a green room at a dingy comedy club. Narrow your focus, block out your surroundings, just do what you have to do to really believe that you and I are sitting in this green room. Suddenly, I get up and walk out onto the stage. I say “And now, with the best story you’ve heard all week…” and then I introduce you. You approach the mic as the crowd’s polite clapping dies down. They’ve settled and it’s Showtime.
Now, tell your amazing story. I’m not kidding. Say it out loud. I don’t care if you are reading this alone or in a public place. Visualize the comedy club, and tell your story with all your might. I’ll wait for you to finish.
How did that go? Could you hear the crowd at the club laughing? Maybe there was actual living breathing human beings around you when you told your story, did they react? Did you know what to say, or why you were saying it?
Ok, thanks for enduring that, because what I just asked you to do isn’t easy. At least it doesn’t seem easy at first.
Go with me one more time.
Hopefully there is someone near you at the moment. Get this real person to ask you how your morning was, or just picture me saying it. I’ll even help to make it real…
How was your morning?
Thanks for sharing. Easier than the comedy club scenario? Maybe you started with a laundry list, “I woke up, took a shower, made a cup of coffee…” But I bet that you eventually got to something more substantial. Maybe along the lines of…
“My Mother went to take a shower before going to Michaels. She saw that I was on my computer, so she asked me to redeem the $5 validation code from her last visit by filling out an online survey. I said ‘sure thing,” and dove in, not realizing what I got myself into. It asked such specific questions about my previous visit. I found myself studying the receipt for any clues that would help me pull off this lie. I answered that everything was satisfactory, just to get the survey over, but then I thought ‘What if the quality of the shopping experience wasn’t actually satisfactory? What if there are problems that need to be addressed with the Michaels staff in Centreville, Virginia and these online surveys are the only way to promote positive change!?’ Overwhelmed with my newfound responsibility, I waited for my Mother to finish her shower and asked her to fill out the survey truthfully. My Mother quickly stated everything with her visit was satisfactory, and I clicked “finish survey,” with a clear conscience.”
That’s how my morning went. And I imagine that the meat of the story of your morning was along the same lines. I also imagine that it was more natural than your amazing comedy club story. This isn’t an accident.
We are ALL great storytellers. It’s in our DNA. Stories have been so ingrained in our make up since the beginning of time, that telling a well-constructed story will happen naturally when you’re not thinking about it, i.e. explaining your morning vs. performing for an audience.
The performed story has become a popular and successful evolution in the world of live theatre for some time now. The rise of story slams and radio shows from the likes of The Moth have turned out-of-work actors into actor/writers equipped with the perfect material to show their artistic strengths. So how do you make that transition from daily life to stage?
With our new storytelling show Sunday Night Supper, Critical Point is trying to make that transition easier by reducing the size of the audience and replacing the dingy green room of the comedy club with the accepting familiarity of the dinner table. While these stories for our show are still considered a performance, the pressure is considerably condensed. First and foremost we make a meal together and eat it. Only when everyone has had his or her fill, do we move into storytelling. We have one theme, the broader the better, and one at a time we tell our story without any crosstalk and concluding with applause. The applause is important, not just as a part of performance, but as thanks for the bravery it takes to share moments of your life with a new group of people.
The stories on SNS are not meant to be a final performance, and I hope to eventually transition some of them to live shows more akin to the atmosphere of a theatrical production. But before we get there, we perfect how we tell these rehearsed stories at the dinner table, and I encourage you to as well. Even if you’re not eyeing a future as an actor or comedian, this kind of mastery of how to express your life experiences will be invaluable in job interviews, networking, etc.
So about a thousand words into this introduction to storytelling, without further ado, here are ten steps to consider when you are consciously telling a story for performance. And remember, the more you practice these, the more they will work their way into your unconscious stories.
1.Choosing A Theme
Most storytelling shows and open mics will have themes for the evening announced beforehand. These themes tend to be a catch all as not to limit the spectrum of what can be told.
There is nothing saying that you can’t make up your own theme and perfect a story in your own time, though. If you do this, perhaps you should pick the broadest theme you can think of, so that if can easily fit into a number of open mic events. Kevin Allison, creator of the RISK! Podcast and The Story Studio has said that when choosing a theme to consider prompts that begins with “first, best, or worst.” In Kevin’s own words, these prompts work because they “point to moments we felt life had become a bit extreme.”
Maybe you are getting ready for job interviews and know what kind of questions to anticipate, like “tell me about yourself,” or “tell me about your last job.” These are themes too, and generally just good questions to have responses for.
2. Get It All Out
At this point, some people would suggest starting writing, but I think that’s ill advised. Instead, think back to our how’s your morning exercise. When there is less pressure to find the meat of the story early on, the easier it will come to you.
Rather than writing out your story, have a friend interview you, or interview yourself. Make sure you are recording this with some kind of sound device. The first question should be the theme. Answer it fully. Don’t leave out any details. You’d be surprised how many memories are suppressed right underneath the surface of your recollection until you start focusing in on that moment in time.
After you have answered the prompt question, your friend should further the interview by picking interesting moments in the story and asking you to delve into those with more detail. Think back to my story about the online survey. A good question would be, “What kind of clues did you find in the receipt?” Good questions also clear up the time line or ask about other moments in your life that similar things have happened.
After this interview you now have all the information that can make up your story. This is a more valuable version of the written first draft.
3. Find What’s Important
An English professor once gave me the great bit of advice that a second draft should be at least half the length of the first draft. That’s applicable to storytelling as well.
Listen back to your interview session. Now it’s time to trim the fat. This is easier than you would think. The things worth listening to will stick out. They will be the bits that make you laugh, or cry, or generally stimulate your brain. You will also find that you’ve said the same thing many different ways. Now you have the freedom to pick the best way to say something and stick with it.
The main point of this listening back though, is to identify WHY you are telling this story. WHY this moment stuck out in your mind. Sometimes this can be a little trickier to identify in one’s own voice. If it doesn’t pop up to you, ask the interviewer their thoughts, or even give it to a friend to listen. In the story I shared, the important bit might be something about my moral code and what that says about me, or maybe commenting on the lengths we will go to save a buck.
Do whatever you have to do to find this meaning, or point, or lesson. Otherwise you’re not telling a story, but rather an anecdote.
An easy cheat is to just wrap up the story with what you have learned or taken away from it all. These have to be constructed carefully to be amazing, but they will always be accepted as an appropriate reason and ending.
4. Find Your Structure
We have to shape your story. The easiest way to do this is to simply tell it in three equal parts consisting of the beginning, middle, and end.
You want to be more specific though. Maybe you start with an indication of the lesson learned at the end, like in this example from me. Maybe you start with the Main Event of the story, which is usually the conflict, though they can be different.
If you go this route, the inciting incident, or the conflict, or both, should become apparent next. We need to know what actions put this memorable story in motion, and thusly what was at stake. The higher the stakes, the better. Not every story will be life and death, but you can understand why my story about the ethics of lying on an online survey is less interesting than a story about a man on a first date having to hide that he has crapped his pants (about 55 minutes in). The stakes are higher, and in a way, much more relatable in the second story.
Now it’s time for the Main Event, which is how you reacted and handled your situation. Even if you are in the wrong in the story, you are our hero. We are with you, and we want to hear your actions. This is often the part of the story that made you think about telling it in the first place.
Lastly the fallout. How did the dust settle? And what came out of it all. This is where you can insert your lesson, or return to something you hinted at in the beginning of the story. Work on the end. It’s the most important part of the story. You want to leave them still thinking about everything you just said.
This is the structure that works for me. It’s basic. It’s tried and true. But it is predictable. So please feel free to mess around with funky structures if it adds to the twists and turns of the story.
5. Write It Down
This should be simple now. You know the information you have, why you’re telling it, and the order you’re going to tell it in.
Write it down, in your voice, word for word how you want it to sound. Every joke. Every beat. Now is the time to make your script.
I just made it sound easier than it is. I’m a writer, and my least favorite part of writing is writing. If you find yourself having difficulties, place yourself somewhere quiet without TV, Internet, or other distractions. You just have to do it. This is the grunt work.
6. Read It Back
You just finished the painful task of writing down your story in a very precise manner. The last thing you probably want to do is read it again, but it will save you many edits.
You will instantly catch anything that has lost authenticity between your initial interview and your current script. Just plug away and tweak as necessary.
I repeat, this will save you many edits later.
7. Rehearse It
You know that scene in Reservoir Dogs?
I’m now the guy with the Afro, and you’re Mr. Orange. I’m ordering you to know your story frontwards and backwards. I’m also allowing you to start using your acting chops. Perfect the funny moments. Find the rhythm, and figure out the theatricality of the piece.
You should rehearse it to the point where you can do it in your sleep.
I’ll wait for you to rehearse it.
Great, now you’re going to hate this next step.
8. Forget The Story
You’re probably screaming at me now, but this is very important. In the Reservoir Dogs clip, the story ultimately succeeds because it sounds like the first time it was told.
Even though your audience knows that this is a performance and that you have prepared your material, they still want to believe that this is just authentically how you speak. Or, to go back to the job interview scenario, your potential boss wants to hear a response that is human and relaxed rather than a lifeless prepared statement.
The trick here is to still know your story frontwards and backwards, but to forget it in the sense that it sounds off the cuff. If you can trick the audience into thinking this amazing story of yours is improvised, then they will forever be in the palm of your hand.
The best stories you’ve heard your friends tell you when grabbing a beer are this same way. They have been told over and over to different groups, with a constant script, but are flexible enough that it sounds like it’s the first time they shared it. And that’s why you want to listen to them over and over.
9. Perform Your Story
You have an amazing story in you now. I believe it. Find an audience. I encourage you to go to the open mics, but it’s not for everyone. Tell your story to your friends over dinner. Have your boss give you a mock interview. You may think that you hard work on the story is over, but you need to gauge an audience’s response in order to move onto the last step.
10. Adapt Your Story
A good story is the heart of any creative adventure. A good movie, book, play, or piece of art all comes from a well-told story. Your story, your amazing story, can become any of these.
Maybe you have a few good stories under your belt now. Do they have anything in common? Can you string them together to make a cohesive night of theatre? Your own one-man show, perhaps?
This is what I aim to help people discover with Sunday Night Supper. A story is the beginning of a great production. You can go from the dinner table to the big screen. Or at the very least, you can be the life of the party, give the great speeches, or just communicate easier with a stranger you meet while waiting for the bus. That’s a pretty big accomplishment in my book.