Ready to tell your best story? Figure out who to channel.

Every few years, I add new dreams to my bucket list. In 2020, I wrote down deliver a TED Talk and get on the Moth Radio HourThen the pandemic hit.

But it wasn’t just the pandemic that stopped me. These dreams terrified me. TED Talks and Moth stories are delivered from memory. While I felt confident about reading in front of a crowd, I didn’t know if I could give an empowering speech or tell a dynamic story without anything to fall back on.

I decided to test my skills during the 2021 HippoCamp Story Slam, but a few days before the conference, I chickened out.

Still, those dreams called to me.

Not wanting fear to thwart my 2022 Story Slam chances, I enlisted the help of Amy Eaton, a dear colleague and live lit coach.

During our first meeting, Amy gave me a few topics to choose from. Then I brainstormed which life experiences best fit that theme. This led me to the story about the most “heavy metal” thing I’d ever seen. The event combined comedy with high drama, but best of all, it tapped into a side of myself that was essential to my memoir.

During our first session, I struggled to stay on track while reciting a rambling version of the story I’d shared at dinner parties.

“Can’t I just write a quick draft?” I asked.

Amy said no, then told me Moth-style stories aren’t written down, because they’re not meant to be memorized. Instead, you learn to deliver them based on your story’s beats.

This made total sense. A memorized story might sound overly rehearsed, or I might freeze if I forgot a line. But simply repeating the story wasn’t working, so I broke bad and created a written draftDoing this helped me see both the story’s angle and arc. Once I knew these things, I employed the strategy Laura Cathcart Robbins used to win the Moth’s LA Grand Slam. In the lead-up to the Slam: rehearse your story twice every morning and twice every evening. As I followed Laura’s lead, I looked for ways to make my details do more work.

After developing a rhythm, I asked Amy for feedback. Her biggest piece of advice: slow down. This puzzled me since my story was already thirty seconds over the Slam’s five-minute limit. Getting there required some ruthless, and at times, painful editing, but I was determined. 

After slashing a bunch of details, we worked to create space around the story’s most important beats. During our final meeting, Amy had me repeatedly deliver certain lines, so I could see—and hear—how tone and speed changed the meaning of each word.

Then we waited for HippoCamp to release the Slam’s theme. When it finally arrived, I experienced some minor panicI knew my story could fit into at least ten themes, but “next time” felt like a stretch.

My first attempt at a reframe resulted in a lame “and here’s the moral of the story” sendoff that reminded me of the ABC Afterschool Specials I’d once hated. So, I got back to work.

One day passed.

Then two.

I almost scrapped the story, but on the day before the conference, I had an epiphany. A comedic mid-story interlude gave me an authentic reason to talk about next time. 

On the drive to Lancaster, I tweaked the story, then recited it a few more times. At the start of the slam, I dropped my name in the hat and waited for my turn.

Amy’s final piece of advice was to pause and make myself big.

Standing in front of the mic, I called upon my inner metal goddess, the qualities from the best speakers I know, and the attitude Brendan O’Meara adds to his CNF podcast newsletters. Then I spoke my story’s first lines.

I left the stage both proud and relieved to have taken one step toward my dream. At the end of the night, I learned my story had won!

If you want to see the video of my performance, click here. While you’re on HippoCamp’s YouTube channel, check out the great performances by second-place winner Brandon Arvesen, third-place winner Molly Bilinksi, and the ones by Amy EatonLara Lillibridge, and Elijah Szewski. They’re all hilarious, poignant, and so well done.

Here are a few of my takeaways from this experience:

  • Knowing my story’s angle helped me understand how to frame the ending.
  • Research gave me confidence in my details.
  • Trusting when to follow Amy’s advice and when to tweak it helped me benefit from her guidance while also remaining true to my creative process.
  • Performing helped me understand the power in the pause. While I hated cutting certain details, the parts of my story that were strongest had space around them.
  • Rehearsals taught me so much about pacing, tone, and how to not just deliver lines but embody them.

You don’t need to sign up for a story slam to learn from this experience. As you’re editing, remember that less is always more. Let your page’s white space do some of the work. And know that practice doesn’t make perfect, but it does make confident and better.

So, as we enter the final months of the year, what’s on your bucket list? When working toward your bucket-list dreams, who will you channel? I’d love to hear your answers.

And if you’re thinking of doing a story slam and want to work with Amy, check out her website. I had a blast working with her. I bet you will too.

Until next week, remember your purpose, speak your truth, and as always, write on.

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