This Is A Boring Shark Attack
March 20, 2018 7:57 PM   Subscribe

I started telling stories onstage at The Moth’s story slam in New York City ten years ago this month. I’ve had some successes along the way but like all successes, they’re buttressed by constant, massive failures.[...] The following rules are things I’ve picked up along the way that help me shape and streamline a story for an audience that is hungry for human connection and a bunch of good laughs.

8 Rules for Fascinating Storytelling: a useful and accessible list of lessons learned from 10 years of onstage storytelling, from MeFi's own chinese_fashion. [via mefi projects]
posted by lalex (47 comments total) 106 users marked this as a favorite
I am a terrible storyteller. I have a godawful memory, my memories are seemingly stored as "A thing happened" with no context regarding if that thing was interesting or funny or sad. If I wanted to tell a story about my past it would take genuine creative effort to flesh out my memories into something worth sharing.

I'm continually floored by others' ability to spontaneously share their experiences in a fun, interesting way. If someone wanted me to share a funny anecdote they better give me a week or so to come up with one, but I know I've had many experiences in my life that other people would find fascinating.
posted by Mr.Encyclopedia at 8:45 PM on March 20, 2018 [18 favorites]

That was great and very helpful, thank you.
posted by Jubey at 8:50 PM on March 20, 2018 [2 favorites]

Interesting article.
posted by WalkerWestridge at 9:00 PM on March 20, 2018 [1 favorite]

I'm also bad at determining when I'm oversharing.
posted by Mr.Encyclopedia at 9:16 PM on March 20, 2018 [13 favorites]

I'm continually floored by others' ability to spontaneously share their experiences in a fun, interesting way.

The secret (for me, at least) is that they are not at all spontaneous. I have two or three different versions of probably two dozen funny anecdotes that I have practiced the fuck out of. It does make it easier to slot new ones into a punchy format, because I've spent so much time figuring out how to structure and time that kind of story, but this is something I actually out-loud practice.

This isn't something that I do for a reason. It's really just an outgrowth of telling myself stories in bed because I was bored and not tired as a little kid. It turned into having imaginary conversations in the car, or the bathtub, or wherever. But for whatever reason I would revise as I went - mutter an exchange, then think of a better, more succinct way to phrase it, mutter it again, add another line, repeat until the bathwater was cold - and it'd leave me with a short, practiced anecdote that pretty consistently gets the reaction I'm looking for.

And hey, anything that prevents me from turning into my dad, the man so funny that he can't finish a joke without laughing too hard to get the punchline out, is worth the effort.
posted by restless_nomad at 9:38 PM on March 20, 2018 [37 favorites]

The secret (for me, at least) is that they are not at all spontaneous. I have two or three different versions of probably two dozen funny anecdotes that I have practiced the fuck out of.

Yeah, this is good to keep in mind.

In my experience, spontaneous storytelling is mostly about practice too.

(I don't do this professionally, but I ran tabletop RPGs for ~25 years for all manner of people and under various circumstances, and making stuff up on the fly - from embellishments of well worn stories to fresh stuff out of whole cloth - gets much easier if you just do it enough times.)

Also: this is a good list. Not the be-all-end-all, but I really like that the author stresses simplicity so much.

If someone wanted me to share a funny anecdote they better give me a week or so to come up with one

The other thing to remember about this: hardly anybody starts out *good* at this stuff. People who become good only do so by persisting through the awkward early phase. I'm sure you could learn it, and from what dim sense of your past I've gleaned around here, you totally ought to.
posted by mordax at 9:59 PM on March 20, 2018 [6 favorites]

My problem is I have the brain of a mathematician, so any story that has been told once, in some context, somewhere, is clearly Known to the Universe, and not worth telling again. I know this is completely untrue, but have to fight the part of my brain that believes it.
posted by kaibutsu at 10:08 PM on March 20, 2018 [28 favorites]

The main thing I notice myself messing up when telling stories is devoting so much brainpower to just remembering the story and the words to describe it that I forget about the listener’s point of view. I use pronouns for people I haven’t introduced yet, I forget to give context, etc. I feel like an ESL speaker whose first language is English! At some level I know better, because I don’t do it when writing. Seems combining spoken words and memory is such a struggle that there’s not room left for much else.
posted by mantecol at 10:23 PM on March 20, 2018 [2 favorites]

The macro and micro seem to be avoided in this list ,and maybe I'm talking about the art of the segue in general, but to me, in the interpersonal social situations that I find myself, I usually identify that someone is either talking from themselves or about a larger structural social or natural issue.
The vibing-out of this binary tells me whether I want to engage in a meaningful improvisational discussion, utilizing a personal anecdote. It's all pudding after the decision has been made.
posted by coolxcool=rad at 10:28 PM on March 20, 2018

I ended up shaping my stories around either the STAR format, or around Dan Harmon's story wheel, mostly because it lets me keep the pacing. You spend about a third of the time setting the scene, you and the situation, then what actually is happening, then the 'point' of the story where it gets crazy, then the consequences, in roughly equal proportions.

I have some difficult problems with some of my stories because some of them are light-hearted stories around the time my brother nearly died and become a local sensation, and so the mood whiplash that's key to the story is difficult to manage: too quick to get to the good bit and it sounds callous, too slow and you crush the mood. That story has so many threads that I end up telling the core of it first, then just start telling crazy anecdotes until I lose the audience.
posted by Merus at 10:33 PM on March 20, 2018 [5 favorites]

I am generally a decent storyteller except for two things - I can't track reliably what stories I have told to who, and it is REALLY hard for me to stay on a single theme between multiple stories.
posted by Samizdata at 1:15 AM on March 21, 2018 [3 favorites]

kaibutsu: my favorite storyteller is a mathematician—perhaps you will find him inspiring. Here's Steve Zimmer telling "Stars, Rockets, and Moons" at The Moth.
posted by she's not there at 2:32 AM on March 21, 2018 [7 favorites]

The secret (for me, at least) is that they are not at all spontaneous.

Huh. Best anecdotalists I know can only tell a given story once. Brilliant performances, but if you miss it, you miss it. Ask them to tell the story again to a third party, and the whole thing just falls apart.
posted by BWA at 4:43 AM on March 21, 2018 [1 favorite]

That Zimmer story is great!
posted by Harald74 at 4:50 AM on March 21, 2018 [2 favorites]

kaibutsu, there's a great book on using storytelling in teaching math!
posted by eviemath at 5:01 AM on March 21, 2018 [4 favorites]

I have two or three different versions of probably two dozen funny anecdotes that I have practiced the fuck out of.

That is weird. Or is that weird? To me, anyway, it is weird. You practice certain set pieces and perform them for people in the room as if you were just casually telling people about that one time you were in Florida and ran into an alligator? I always figured the people telling the funny stories were just naturally good at it.

What about jokes? Do people practice telling jokes? Because I have never been able to tell decent (or indecent) jokes to much effect. I always envy people who can (and will) just start reeling off jokes at parties or bars.
posted by pracowity at 5:01 AM on March 21, 2018 [2 favorites]

My own storytelling life was started by a territorial gerbil and a panicked need to explain why I emerged bloodied from the kindergarten bathroom to hide my shame about surrendering to temptation and ignoring the "DO NOT TOUCH THE GERBIL" sign in large and well-articulated handwriting on the gerbil's enclosure which, for whatever reason, was stationed there. I stepped out of the tiled bathroom, hoping for anonymity even as my hand left a trail of red punctuation marks on the harvest gold carpet, and was immediately intercepted by the classroom aide, Mrs. Hecker, who asked the fearful question.

"Why are you bleeding, Mr. Wall?"

"Umm," I said, a whole engine room of newly installed machinery in my head groaning into action. "I cut my hand on the paper towel thing and—"

"You cut your hand getting a paper towel?"

"Uh, yeah, the towel dispenser was sharp and I slipped because my hands were wet and the floor got wet and I slid and—" I said, starting to spin an increasingly complex tale of how I'd injured myself that would become a blueprint for future ventures into the glorious world of storytelling, first as an escape from responsibility and then as a realization that in the even-tempered, earth-toned, averaged-out world of elementary school in the seventies, words and how they were chosen and arranged could reshape reality.

"That looks suspiciously like a gerbil bite to me," Mrs. Hecker said, examining my hand as she applied the sting of an alcohol wipe and applied a plastic bandage, and I was caught, but it was an intoxicating moment of dramatic reconstruction that worked as well for flowery lies and stories that would otherwise be flat exposition without the right pacing, pauses, and perfect adjectives.

I was a flamboyant liar as a child—a thorough and sometimes credible raconteur of alternate explanations for my ventures in stupidity—and oddly, that's a great start for telling true stories down the line. To get away with one's most lurid half-truths, one had to master memory, so that a story stayed consistent from listener to listener, and drama, so that you had enough time and attention to properly tease out the details that made the whole thing work.

In retrospect, it was all part of an internal effort to make sense of a world that always seemed so much duller than what seemed fair. We were born, we were alive, and life should have been about shaking the stars out of the skies, but more often, it was just feeding the chickens and taking out the kitchen compost and diagramming sentences, and my grandmother aided and abetted my escape from the mundane with her own stories and the electric moment when, apropos of nothing, she leaned into me with a menthol-scented Baltimore whisper in 1978.

"Joe-B," she said, "Did I ever tell you I'm part Indian princess from outer space?"

In adulthood, the process of learning to tell my stories was more of a wandering path through the incoherent landscape of uncontrolled rambling to my overscripted and often overwrought attempts to be a latter-day Laurie Anderson in the early nineties, complete with a stage full of squabbling synthesizers failing to respond to their orders, which taught me how to improvise and vamp until the goddamn thing rebooted mid-story. These days, my focus is on shifting down from my comfortable 60-90 minute one-man-show format, which is probably my most natural unit of tale, to the 20-30 minute festival narratives I perform while accompanying them with a tiny synthesizer rig that I jokingly call my "banjo" as an homage to the folk troubadour tradition, and scaling away from sprawling epics to work in the customary 7-to-15-minute story format that's finally giving me access to ensemble storytelling shows.

My best learning moment, though, was figuring out that there's a natural storytelling rhythm and pace that's inherent to each of us and to the kinds of stories we tell, and that when you master the structure, it becomes easier and easier to populate the details on the fly in ways that suit your own narrative. I used to script and soundtrack in minute detail, which made for a great feeling of initial control, an anxious performance as a seemingly endless series of cues I'm afraid of missing, and a sense of disappointment at the end that I'd failed to execute the story with aplomb and humor...but now I basically work and rework, write up a 3x5 index card of keywords that highlight waypoints on the trail to the end of the story (which I keep on hand for reference, but never seem to use in performance, as the process of writing that out and recopying it as I work through a given story tends to install it in my head), and step out into the lights on a stage with a history of mostly getting it right.

In the end, the joy of a story is similar to what it was when I was very young, when I found that words make reality, even when the reality I was making was often divergent from the tale as it actually unfolded, and there's a nice middle-ground between the comforting structure of just repeating your story from a mental script and the ego-affirming delight of stepping off the stage into the attention of the audience and being carried by their enthusiasm, and it's something that most people can do after a moment of being foolhardy, ignoring the "DO NOT TOUCH THE GERBIL" sign in large and well-articulated handwriting, lifting the lid to the caged stories we all keep, and cornering a rodent that does not want to be held.

It's going to hurt, but it gets easier.
posted by sonascope at 5:04 AM on March 21, 2018 [22 favorites]

I've been participating in our local storyslam for the last four years, mostly the local Moth and another storyslam series hosted by a separate community. And for a long time, I was, you know, ok. I never won a slam, but I would usually place somewhere in the top half of the field. I'm not a particularly competitive person and I was just happy to be there to listen and to share. A lot of my early stories stemmed from an adventurous past where I'd share tall tales of riding my bike across France or some other form of larger than life adventure travel. You know, stuff that was exciting on its own and didn't need a lot of embellishment. But in watching a lot of winners perform, I really came to appreciate how different tellers could take something as simple as a conversation in a grocery store aisle and turn it into something captivating.

Then I pitched a story about how I met my wife to a storytelling show that was being produced by our local PBS affiliate, and it got accepted! I was going to be on TV! I had made it! I was psyched.

But, really, the thing that I was going to be most psyched about was that I was going to get free coaching. It's TV. It's gotta be polished. It can't be the amateur hour of a local open mic slam.

So, I was introduced to a pro who had read my pitch and asked me to just tell my entire story with no worries about time limits and no worries about format. So I told it to her like when my wife and I would tell our friends about how we met. And that's part of what some folks on this thread are referring to. We got asked so often by our friends about how our relationship started, and we just developed this script over time as we both told the same story over and over again. It's not like either of us practice at home, but more or less by the fifth time somebody asked, "how did you meet?" the mental muscle memory had formed.

And my coach listened and said, "that's is really, genuinely lovely, but it's a lot of this happened and then this happened ... what's it really about?" and over the next hour we collaboratively stripped the story down through all of the anecdotal elements to talk about me as an intense young man who had to grow up and learn how to deal with his feelings. I really appreciated that.

Too often we think of storytelling as just taking a really good anecdote that you might sometimes share at a dinner party but just telling it in front of a mic to an audience of strangers. And dinner party stories are fine. They can be funny and entertaining and great. But we rarely let ourselves be vulnerable at dinner parties. We're often too concerned with showing off, and sometimes one-upping each other. And I think one thing that separates really good, winning stories from stuff that places in the top half of the field is that it's not just about retelling that dinner party story with more polish. It's about looking at it and thinking, well, what is this anecdote really about? What's the experience that transformed me? How can I help the audience come along with that transformation? And how can I make it funny/captivating/compelling?

I think a lot of these rules are overly prescriptive (using internet speak is sometimes needed if it's actually part of the story), but #7 and #8 really get to the heart of it. Who are you? What do you want from life? Ok, that's cool. Dig deeper than that. What do you really want. Always go deeper. Always push through that public facade that we maintain to guard the things we really care about.
posted by bl1nk at 5:28 AM on March 21, 2018 [24 favorites]

oh and like sonascope, the other 'crafty' trick that I use for practicing is also to break away from the idea of memorizing a "script" and really remember a "map" of the story.

The story starts here, and goes in a straight line until this Significant Moment and it goes left, then it goes right. then it goes up at this point and then it reaches the climax here. Then it comes back as I summarize what I learned from the experience. There are details that go into each of those directions, but I don't sweat what those details have to be and don't freak out if I forget or misplace one. I stick with the map. And if it comes out too long, I don't try to shave words or chop sentences. I take out whole directions and find a shortcut.

Shaving words will make you anxious and your story brittle. Dropping whole paragraphs from your story saves you 30 seconds to a minute and gives you room to breathe, but also forces you to get at the essential nub of your story without excessive ornamentation.
posted by bl1nk at 5:34 AM on March 21, 2018 [5 favorites]

If you catch yourself saying “sad-face-emoji” or “hashtag first-world problems” out loud while standing in front of other people, you should sit down.

This is true for all possible scenarios, not just storytelling.
posted by FatherDagon at 5:40 AM on March 21, 2018 [2 favorites]

Some friends of mine used to run a live storytelling event called Other People's Stories, at which you could only tell stories that other people had told you.

This was a brilliant rule, because you already filter out the cruft and extraneous detail that seems so relevant to you when telling your own stories. What you remember of other people's stories is the heart of them. You have already been the audience for the story you are about to tell, and the fact of having first received the story made the tellers better at telling those stories.

There's probably a gnomic principle to be derived out of this, which I leave as an exercise to the reader.
posted by gauche at 6:34 AM on March 21, 2018 [8 favorites]

I found the coaching when I was first on Stoop Storytelling in Baltimore in 2017 to be both humbling and eye-opening. I've been telling stories on stage since the early nineties, with a fair amount of success, and having to sit in a room with the hosts and a half dozen other storytellers, tell my story in a small and very acoustically dry space, and respond to critique was sort of...challenging. See—the trouble with my route to storytelling was sort of backwards, in that I went straight from telling stories to people on intercity buses to doing eighty-minute one-man-shows, without ever workshopping or processing criticism, and it's alarmingly easy to be full of yourself.

Thing is, I knew sprawling one-man shows, but I didn't know seven-minute stage stories, and on my first coached telling, my seven-minute story was fifteen minutes long and felt perfect to me...but to people who'd never heard it, the little hooks and asides, most of which serve a story when it's a unit of a much-longer narrative, just made it drag, or go too far on side-trips that didn't fit the flow of a short stage story. Of course, it was a wallop to my ego, having to cut out big sections of the story that I thought were absolutely essential, but I gritted my teeth and left stuff out...and it was a different story, and the same story, and on a scale that worked in context.

I should have known, of course. In 2015, I revived a popular long-form story for a performance in Saint Louis, and I'd mostly graduated from scripts and iOS-based teleprompting to index cards of waypoints, which, in my case, work out to about 20-24 minutes of story for each index card full of keywords. I'd rewritten, edited, and expanded my hour-long story from 2010 into a 110-minute version, which felt almost right, but in the theater a few hours before the show, I had a moment of clarity, ditched about thirty minutes of material, rewrote all my index cards and reworked my musical cue cards to reflect the changes...and it was a far better telling than either the shorter original version or the too-long expanded one.

There's a complicated ego process involved in putting yourself out there on stage, all tangled up with insecurity and overconfidence, and man, my ego was sorely unhappy about leaving so much on the cutting room floor, even if I knew intellectually that it really did serve the rhythm of a kind of narrative that was new to me.

I went on stage and absolutely killed. I'd left out what I thought was THE core of the story, but I was forced to remember that a story has many cores and threads, and life's short, so you can't cover all the bases, and I'd had to sit there and not challenge people who were giving me good advice despite a lingering and incorrect feeling that I was being told I wasn't good enough, and as a result I learned something that made my performances for the rest of that year even better. Plus, it reminded me what I already knew, which was that stories often are better when they merely allude to elements that they don't actually reveal, leaving that little imaginative thread for the audience to tug at in their own minds.
posted by sonascope at 6:50 AM on March 21, 2018 [7 favorites]

I just woke up and discovered that my piece had been posted to The Blue here, and it feels like a little tiny Christmas! So cool to read all your comments here - developing a few responses of my own, please hold.
posted by chinese_fashion at 7:41 AM on March 21, 2018 [18 favorites]

@pracowity - People ABSOLUTELY practice jokes. I'm a standup in NYC, and most of my friends/colleagues are constantly developing and trying new bits to see what works - and what COULD work with tweaking.

It's like putting an idea through a rock polisher until it shines just right.

The feeling that comes from working an idea until you have a solid joke that's really your own and gets people to laugh is unbelievable.

@BWA - The trick is to know a story so well - like, down to its periodic table - that you can tell it AS THOUGH you are just telling it spontaneously, but you can do it over and over again.

@bl1nk - I couldn't agree with you more - if you know the real terrain, you don't have to memorize it like a laundry list.

@she's not there - Zimmer is a friend of mine, and we've coached each other a lot over the years. He's a storytelling savant!
posted by chinese_fashion at 7:56 AM on March 21, 2018 [5 favorites]

@BWA - The trick is to know a story so well

Oh, the people involved wouldn't care. You're absolutely right, of course, but we're talking civilians with other things on their plates, if you missed one story another one will come along in due course.
posted by BWA at 9:25 AM on March 21, 2018

>> If you catch yourself saying “sad-face-emoji” or “hashtag first-world problems” out loud while standing in front of other people, you should sit down.

> This is true for all possible scenarios, not just storytelling.

I disagree; that was the only point in an otherwise-great essay that didn't seem right. The Internet has changed nearly everything about how people think and communicate, and it's inevitable that some Internet-isms will bleed into spoken language. Calling it "bad" is as much a form of gate-keeping as, I dunno, all the bullshit hand-wringing over "ebonics" back in the 90s. Language changes and evolves. Hashtag deal with it, sunglasses emoji.
posted by jacobian at 10:21 AM on March 21, 2018 [8 favorites]

@jacobian I don't think that I'm actually going to change your mind here, but I feel really strongly that you are wrong.

The reason we have hashtags is to connect stuff online. They don't function to pull any other real-life conversations when they're said out loud. Emojis are good for when you don't want to use words for something.

But if you're talking to human beings, you have words and facial expression. Like, you can make your actual face smile instead of a smiley face. If you're talking to people and not willing to use words you probably aren't ready to talk yet.

Even Wile E. Coyote uses words when he holds up his little signs.
posted by chinese_fashion at 10:36 AM on March 21, 2018 [1 favorite]

If you're talking to people and not willing to use words you probably aren't ready to talk yet.

MMmmmmmmMMMMMMMmmmmmmmmmmmm yeah no. I've been running a monthly live literature series for seven years now and have heard hundreds of people tell stories in just about every style you could think of and never once has verbally hashtagging something or describing an emoji failed to get a laugh. It is not a replacement for expressing emotion or categorizing, they are very specific references to the culture they the performer and we the audience exist together in and are valid forms of expression in the real world.
posted by Maaik at 11:02 AM on March 21, 2018 [6 favorites]

MMmmmmmmMMMMMMMmmmmmmmmmmmm yeah no.

Opening with a cliche is maybe not the best way to convince someone that their argument against cliched speech is incorrect.
posted by chinese_fashion at 11:09 AM on March 21, 2018 [2 favorites]

Well I don't think that I'm actually going to change your mind here, but I feel really strongly that you are wrong.
posted by Maaik at 11:11 AM on March 21, 2018

All I am saying is that using internet speak in a live storytelling setting should be—as with, y'know, every other word you say—a specific choice, just like similar choices to use contractions, slang, other languages, hyperbole, expletives, etc. They can be used in functional ways whether that's advancing the plot or getting a laugh where you need one. They can obviously be used as crutches, just as any of those other devices I named can be, but expressly advising against it definitely is, as Jacobian pointed out, a form of gatekeeping.
posted by Maaik at 11:28 AM on March 21, 2018 [3 favorites]

I don't disagree that it's a form of gatekeeping.

I'm saying that if you're not willing to consider that relying on cliches for laughs instead of writing your own ideas in your own words, you're not ready to walk through the gate into a more advanced realm.
posted by chinese_fashion at 12:04 PM on March 21, 2018

Then say cliche. Say "try to avoid cliches." Singling out internet speak is itself a pretty glaring cliche.
posted by Maaik at 12:14 PM on March 21, 2018

jacobian, I'd be really impressed if you had actual sunglasses slowly drop from the ceiling and land on your face before you said "deal with it".
posted by a halcyon day at 1:23 PM on March 21, 2018 [3 favorites]

The reason we have hashtags is to connect stuff online. They don't function to pull any other real-life conversations when they're said out loud. Emojis are good for when you don't want to use words for something.

The problem with this argument is it assumes that verbally saying “hashtag first world problems” is supposed to accomplish the same thing that an online hashtag does, and since you can’t actually orally link to another conversation, a spoken hashtag serves no purpose. But that’s clearly wrong. Surely it’s obvious that people don’t say “hashtag first world problems” to link to other conversations. They do it as a humorous or wry metamessage about the story they are telling. If it fails to elict a laugh, connect to the audience through shared jargon, or communicate a point about the speaker’s perspective, then, sure, maybe it should be cut. But, young padawan, saying people shouldn’t reference online lingo because you aren’t linking to another conversation is like saying I shouldn’t allude to Star Wars if we aren’t watching it right then.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 2:02 PM on March 21, 2018 [6 favorites]

Yeah, you've gotta practice stories! You ever rerun a conversation in your head? It's just like that, but in reverse.
posted by lucidium at 2:04 PM on March 21, 2018 [1 favorite]

(For that matter, I’d bet at least a tenth of real world online hashtag use is a metamessage, not intended to usefully connect to other conversations.) #searchyourfeelings #youknowitstrue
posted by Pater Aletheias at 2:07 PM on March 21, 2018 [4 favorites]

@jacobian I don't think that I'm actually going to change your mind here, but I feel really strongly that you are wrong.

The reason we have hashtags is to connect stuff online. They don't function to pull any other real-life conversations when they're said out loud. Emojis are good for when you don't want to use words for something.

I think I agree with Pater Aletheias. I don't necessarily love people using "hashtag" in a sentence (it's an octothorpe!) but it seems more acceptable as a humorous or wry metamessage about the story they are telling.

Bu the reason we have @USERNAME is to connect stuff on Twitter. It doesn't have any functionality in the thread, doesn't do anything that addressing someone directly by name doesn't do and has been highly deprecated here for over a decade. It stands out at least as much as someone saying "hashtag" or "hamburger emoji."
posted by ActingTheGoat at 2:23 PM on March 21, 2018 [3 favorites]

I really don't enjoy being told stories. Which is weird because I love watching films, seeing plays and reading fiction. I just get incredibly antsy at monologued stories in conversation, even if the teller has skill (actually moreso if the teller has skill) because I just want them to share the facts so we can discuss the outcome already...

To that end the list here is making my toes curl. For the same reason I can't stand the 'storification' approach to so much current podcasting effort. Just tell me the thing and I'll decide for myself how to process it! I have no clue why this should be thus for me. What am I missing?
posted by freya_lamb at 4:32 PM on March 21, 2018 [1 favorite]

That is weird. Or is that weird? To me, anyway, it is weird. You practice certain set pieces and perform them for people in the room as if you were just casually telling people about that one time you were in Florida and ran into an alligator? I always figured the people telling the funny stories were just naturally good at it.

I'm not sure I ever go out of my way to practice or memorize a story per se, but I feel like I'm basically rehearsing or refining a story every time I tell it. It feels like a natural part of telling a good story to all the people you know--you read their reactions, notice what bits work or don't work, figure out ways to reword things, simplify or smooth out details that don't actually add much, etc. I feel like I'm often doing this stuff unconsciously as I'm telling a story, and that everyone must do it to some extent.
posted by chrominance at 4:40 PM on March 21, 2018 [1 favorite]

People ABSOLUTELY practice jokes. I'm a standup in NYC

Well, that's a different story. I meant people who do not see themselves as comedians. Or is everyone a comedian now?
posted by pracowity at 1:36 AM on March 22, 2018 [1 favorite]

Or is everyone a comedian now?

If Twitter is to be believed...
posted by Maaik at 6:22 AM on March 22, 2018

chinese_fashion: I've listened to everything by Steve Zimmer that google can find and one of the things I love about his storytelling is that his stories so often sound like it's the first time he's telling them—and I mean that in a good way, because I assume that much effort has been put into his work. And that's not to say that I don't appreciate more "polished" (for lack of a better word) storytellers, it's just that that trait makes him stand out from the crowd.

Please pass on my thanks for the hours of thought-provoking entertainment—I've listened to everything repeatedly and I share all Zimmer stories with my adult kids, who also love him. Tetris is a family favorite and, as atheists, we especially appreciate the story about the tadpoles. He's left me with a handful of phrases that will bring a smile to my face until the day I die, beginning with "fourth grade raptors" and "the Ritalin is really scores jump immediately".
posted by she's not there at 1:02 PM on March 22, 2018

People ABSOLUTELY practice jokes.

yeah, but jokes are very much about timing, precision. I do find it curious how many people in this thread don't find it curious that people practice their anecdotes. It's honestly something that's never occurred to me ... beyond inevitably telling the same anecdote more than once (because it's interesting, because you're telling it to different people), and perhaps getting better at it as you go. But that's just natural flow, not something I'd ever have thought to work on in my spare time.

Though something I call the RISE scenario does come to mind in this regard (ERIS works just as well, as does SIRE). I think of it as specific to writing, but I suppose it applies to all storytelling. Basically, what we call a good story generally comes from a combination of the teller's


... usually with an element of each, but never exactly the same balance. I mean, if you're the lone survivor of a plane crash, I suspect your raw experience is going to be enough to make that story interesting, regardless of weaknesses in research, style, imagination. On the other hand, if you don't really have any compelling experience to draw on, it's best to get busy in those other three areas, which is where I start to see how/why folks might be practicing their anecdotes ... working on the style aspect of it. And if it all adds up to me hearing a more engaging anecdote next time I'm having a beer with so-and-so, well who's complaining?
posted by philip-random at 11:02 PM on March 22, 2018 [1 favorite]

For me, it's less about practicing anecdotes than it is just telling things over and over and noting what makes the story land better for the greatest number of people, with the least amount of blathery framing (note: blathery framing is part of my stock in trade, alas). Fortunately, I belong to a curling club in which our rosters rotate four times a year, so I'm called upon to tell this story or that, and broomstacking in the warm room is a perfect percolator for stories.

In time, you're not so much fully rehearsed at relating a specific anecdote as you just have a sense of yourself as a speaker, and get to know your natural pacing and gestures so that you can pretty much share any anecdote with a fair amount of facility. Years of practice in retelling specific stories (my tales of my high school girlfriend, Lurleen, are oft-requested) has let me be more loose, improvisational in how elements are included, arranged, and emphasized, and relaxed about sharing stories, so that I enjoy the process more and that enjoyment gets conveyed to an audience.
posted by sonascope at 7:48 AM on March 23, 2018 [1 favorite]

I know this guy! I mean I saw his story about empathetic subway screaming and it's permanently one of my favorite things.
posted by bunderful at 1:39 PM on March 23, 2018

Got to this very late, but just wanted to say I loved it.
posted by Mchelly at 9:25 AM on March 27, 2018

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