Arts and CultureSan Francisco

How to Tell A Killer Open Mic Story

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By Jillian Robertson
Former producer of The Moth in San Francisco and Berkeley

I always tell people, the right storytelling show has an audience that’s the polar opposite of a comedy club one. Gone are the hecklers, the fellow comics quietly judging your performance, the jaded old timers daring you to impress them. A good open mic storytelling show audience is warm, forgiving, and, as I witnessed first-hand once, willing to shout “you can do it!” to a storyteller who got under the lights and instantly forgot the first line of her story.

That said, even a warm audience likes a good story, not a bad one. So here are some tips to help you do just that:

Open Mic Dos

Tell what you know. We have judges at our show, selected randomly out of the audience, and we advise them to judge the story on several factors, including that the story must be true. This might seem like a tough rule to judge and an easy one for a storyteller to fake. But you’d be surprised. We can tell. I heard an incredible, authentic story about a woman eating ribs in bed and a terrible, embellished one about scuba diving in Fiji. Go with what you know.

Don’t be a hero. Sometimes the most relatable moments come from when you make a mistake or fall down. The bad date, the lost job, the accidental faux pas while traveling abroad. It’s all relatable and if you learned something that helped you recover, even better. Share it with us. Did you save a baby from a burning building? Awesome, but remember that stories told without counterpoint, just “here’s a time I was awesome,” end up sounding like bragging. But still, good on ya for saving that baby.

Don’t memorize your story. It might sound counterintuitive, but nothing makes a story sounds more stale than one that has clearly been memorized and is being rote recited for the show. It’s also a sure-fire way to forget your story, if you get flustered and forget what line comes next. By comparison, if you know your story organically, you can easily find your way back into it. My only exception to this rule is to know your first and last line cold. As we say in the storytelling “business,” know how to get into your story and how to get out.

Start strong. “There I was, onstage, stark naked. And it wasn’t a dream, it was real life. But it wasn’t really a stage, it was a grimy, carpeted platform. And I wasn’t completely naked, I had a homemade G-string on.” This opening line came from a snowy haired grandma with pictures of her grandkids lovingly displayed on a custom-made belt. Because you never know what you’re gonna get. Jump right into your story and bring us with you.

Have a turning point. We joke that the line we hear the most often, verbatim, is “and in that moment, I realized,” but it’s true. And for good reason. A story with a sharp turning point, a catharsis, is usually a strong story. If you came away from the experience changed, hone the moment when that happened. Often, a great story will hinge on that moment. The moment you realize you’d survived a brush with death, or that a relationship was over, or that, after that night of drinking, you woke up somewhere you didn’t expect.

Open Mic Don’ts

TMI. If you’re on a first date, don’t share your story of exploits with other women in graphic detail, then point out your poor date, squirming in the front row and eyeing the exit.

Skip the poop stories. On a similar theme, believe it or not, when it comes to poop stories, we’ve heard ‘em all. Unless it helped you come to some unique insight that changed your life, we don’t wanna hear it.

Sadness is ok, vulnerability is ok, but give us hope. I’ve heard incredible stories from war veterans, disaster survivors, and other keepers of harrowing tales. But the time you saw someone drown a box of puppies or the time you killed a possum that was wrecking your garden with a shovel (both real stories!!) are horrifying visuals. Unless there’s a redeeming quality or some kernel of insight, please don’t put those images in our heads.

Don’t tell someone else’s story. This seems obvious, but a story that happened to your sister’s boss’s neighbor’s parrot isn’t as compelling as one that happened to YOU. [See “Open Mic Dos #1]

10 stories a night, times 2 shows a month, times 5 years equals… a lot of stories.

I’ve heard the story of a woman who learned to read from the Dr. Seuss books in her pediatric oncology ward, a man who accidentally signed up for a prenatal yoga class, an English teacher who ran into one of his students while he was tripping on acid, a student who went back for his degree after a stint at San Quentin, a Catholic who recalled bringing a boa constrictor to catechism to impress her friends, and a Muslim who ate nachos to tackle racism in rural Missouri.

Inevitably, I’ve seen people’s stories go off the rails, onstage, live, because anything goes when it comes to live storytelling. I’ve alluded to a few of them in the tips above, but more often than not, the stories surprised and moved us.

I’ll end this where for me it all began, telling my first story onstage back in 2012, about biking 700 miles through southeast Asia with my dad. The endless miles of dirt paths spinning out ahead of us as we crossed from Thailand into Laos, Laos into Cambodia. We were drenched by monsoons, struck with fevers, burned by the sun, and yet we emerged triumphant, watching the sun rise over Angkor Wat from the seats of our bicycles. I told this story as a dare to myself, a New Year’s resolution, one of those motivational poster mantras, “Do one thing everyday that scares you.” Telling it from the stage did scare me, but I did it anyway.

I hope these tips will help you too to tell your story. There’s an eager audience that can’t wait to hear it.


Interested in hearing some great stories told live or telling your own? Checkout The Moth

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