Lessons from my third Moth victory

On Thursday night I was fortunate enough to win my third Moth StorySLAM of my storytelling career at The Bitter End in New York City. The theme of the night was AFTERMATH. I told a story the decisions that my parents made when I was a child and how the birth of my own children has cast those decisions in a new and unfortunate light for me. Following every StorySLAM, and especially every victory, I like to try to analyze my performance in order to glean any lessons or insight that might help me in future competitions.

It was an unusual StorySLAM in a couple ways. First, though The Bitter End was jammed with people, it wasn’t the usual raucous Moth crowd that I have come to expect at these events, perhaps because it was the week following Christmas and the audience was made up of many non-New Yorkers who were in town for the holidays. I suspect that there were a lot of people taking in The Moth for the first time and were not accustomed to the level of enthusiasm exhibited by typical Moth audiences.

It wasn’t a bad crowd. Just a quieter crowd. A little harder to make laugh.

Whatever the reason, the story I had prepared for the evening was not supposed to be funny, so it was probably the perfect kind of story for this particular audience.

It was also the first (and hopefully the last) time that I have heard storytellers call out other storytellers while onstage. It made for a couple of odd and slightly uncomfortable moments, to say the least. The first storyteller attempted to be funny by opening his story with a jab at previous storyteller’s story. The subsequent storyteller then attacked the first storyteller, calling him a douchebag for his criticism. Both remarks quieted the crowd and elicited groans from the people around me.

Another storyteller took the stage and opened by thanking us for braving the cold and the long line, attempting a Kumbaya-like moment with the audience.

I don’t think any of these things helped the storytellers in terms of their scores, nor did they serve to endear them to their audience.

I have always been a fan of getting on the stage, telling the story and getting off. Save the commentary for the host of the evening. That’s their job. Not ours.

That’s exactly what I did when I took the stage, but in truth, luck played a large role in my victory on Thursday night.

First, I was the final person to be called to the stage, which is an enormous benefit to any storyteller. The first storyteller of the night was someone I know well, and her story was outstanding. Humorous and revealing and full of suspense. It should have at least been contending with mine for the win, but because she went first, her chances for victory were exceptionally small.

I’m not sure if anyone has ever won a StorySLAM going first.

I also changed my story dramatically while onstage. On the drive to the city, I practiced my story in the car for my friend, but the story that I had prepared at home and told in the car was vastly different from the one told two hours later in front of the audience. I was fortunate. In the midst of telling the story, I found a couple of surprise transitions that helped propel it forward at a more rapid clip, and I stumbled upon two funny lines that worked very well.

Like I said, I got lucky.

As a storyteller, I feel that there is a delicate balance between being prepared and being over prepared. I’ve taken the stage at The Moth with a story that I have memorized almost word for word and done well, but more often, it seems as if I perform better if I have a general idea of my story, a few moments of planned transition and an opening line ready. By not memorizing the story entirely or even planning every moment of the story, I have more flexibility onstage and a greater opportunity to gauge the audience’s reaction, adjust if necessary and find those surprise moments that often work so well.

Of course, this can be dangerous, too. If I have not prepared enough, I might find myself lost in the story at moments, unable to finish it succinctly.

Like I said, it’s a delicate balance.

Also, for the first time ever, I took note of the location of the judges in the room. The three teams of judges happened to be located in the same general area, in front and to the left of the stage. Knowing that there were no judges to my right, I didn’t turn in that direction and establish eye contact with those audience members as often as I normally would have. Instead, I focused most of my attention straight ahead and to the left, where I knew that judges were seated. I’m not sure if this made a difference, but I can’t imagine that it hurt.

I’m still walking on air following my Moth victory on Thursday night. It broke a frustrating string of four second place finishes and will give me another chance at winning a GrandSLAM.

I love taking the stage and telling stories at The Moth. I feel exceptionally fortunate when my name emerges from that tote bag, allowing me the opportunity to tell my story to a willing audience. If it was not a competition but simply an evening of storytelling, I would still be dropping my name in that bag, hoping for it to be drawn.

But I won’t lie. The competitive aspect of The Moth adds an additional layer that I like very much. Win or lose, I love knowing exactly how I did on any given night. Having spent much of my childhood playing video games, I like to know my score. I like to know where I placed. I like to know if and how I should improve.

The Moth offers that as well.

And when you actually manage to win, you get to walk on air for a few days. Not a bad reward.