Story Slam: Got a story worth fighting for?
Telling a story in front of an audience isn’t a grade-school recitation of the Gettysburg Address. It’s the feeling of the experience you’re after, not a blow-by-blow account.
“Don’t memorize your story word-for-word,” cautions professional storyteller Andrea Lovett of Abington. “You’ll end up forgetting something and then you’ll be up there searching for those wonderful words. It will pull you out of the story and it will pull your audience out, as well.”
It’s best, instead, to remember the general arc of your story and a few key points to cover.
If you do forget a critical part of your story, try to work back to it subtly.
“If you have to go back, don’t say ‘I forgot to tell you,’” said Lovett. “Try ‘what you might not know is ...’ or ‘what I haven’t told you yet ...’”
Lovett has a wealth of advice on storytelling, which she will share during a two-hour workshop on March 2. While free, Lovett’s crash course on how to captivate an audience is reserved for contestants in the upcoming Valley Voices Story Slam on March 14.
Storytellers from around western Massachusetts will vie for the 10 five-minute slots by calling a phone number and leaving the first line of their stories on a designated voice mail.
Lovett has been a storyteller for decades — longer, as she put it, than she likes to admit. She was a small child when she first became enthralled with spoken stories.
“My father was a storyteller and so was my grandmother,” she reflected. “I would sit for hours and listen to her tell stories.”
She began to love the feeling of living vicariously through others’ experiences. Years later, a relatives’ forgetfulness would give Lovett the chance to try her own hand at public storytelling.
“My cousin started reading stories at kids’ birthday parties,” recalled Lovett, who often tagged along. “She kept forgetting the books, so I would tell stories. It came naturally and the kids were always slack-jawed.”
She likes to tell stories not just with her words, but with her whole being.
“The expressions on your face and the gestures you make can bring a story to life,” she said. “Combined with the right tone and pacing, they make the audience really connect to the story.”
Later, Lovett would reconnect with an old friend who had gone on to make a living as a storyteller.
She thought, “why not me?”
Lovett has supported herself as a storyteller for 22 years, catering to all audiences, from kids to adults.
She also co-founded MassMouth, a statewide storytelling organization, and is a member of the League for the Advancement of New England Storytelling, a co-sponsor of Valley Voices.
She said she’s watched story slams and storytelling in general really take root around Boston since MassMouth got its start eight years ago.
“When we founded MassMouth, people thought storytellers were just for kids,” she said. “Now, they think storytellers are cool in Boston.”
Lovett hopes story slams will catch on and spread throughout western Massachusetts, as well.
They’re a relatively low-rent event, needing just a venue, an organizer, an audience and some willing participants. A stage and sound system are good to have, but optional.
Most story slams are more free-form events than competitions. Though some may include a featured storyteller, most make their way to the stage the old-fashioned way — by having their names drawn from a hat. There’s always a theme, said Lovett, which often lends itself to double-entendre.
“I remember one was ‘snowed under.’ For some, it meant a literal snowstorm, for others it meant being overwhelmed with work.”
The theme for the March 14 slam at Hinge in Northampton is “second chances.”
Grab them from the get-go
You’ve got one chance to be chosen for the Valley Voices Story Slam. Ten contestants will be selected based on the first sentence of their stories.
“First lines are important,” said Lovett. “‘It was a dark and stormy night’ isn’t going to cut it.”
The same goes for “once upon a time ...” or Lovett’s pet peeve, “The year was ...”
“When someone starts a story with ‘the year was 2012,’ I start to think of what I was doing in 2012,” Lovett said. That gets the audience daydreaming and takes them out of the story before they’ve had a chance to get into it.
So what’s a good first line sound like?
“A first line should give a little hint of what’s to come” without giving too much away, Lovett advised.
“I’m not usually a risk taker, but today was the day,” was the engaging start to a story Lovett heard from a first-time skier.
Involving one of the five senses can also bring your audience into the fold.
“I smelled the acrid smoke and I couldn’t tell where I was,” makes a better beginning to a story than “one time I was in a burning building,” Lovett said.
If you can craft a compelling opening line, the audience will want to hear the rest.
“Once you get them hooked, they’re there to stay,” Lovett said.
A storyteller’s suggestions
“Plant your feet on the floor and don’t move your body around,” said Lovett. “Show animation with your face. You can say a whole paragraph with a single expression.”
While new storytellers may feel the urge to act out their stories, Lovett said it’s a good way to lose an audience.
She recalled watching one storyteller describe a fall and take a literal dive on stage. The first few rows of the audience could tell what he was doing, but it confused those farther back, who couldn’t see as well.
“The people in the back of the room were left thinking ‘where’d he go?’ It was very distracting.”
She’s also seen people tank a perfectly good story by wildly gesturing, or frantically pacing back and forth on stage.
“Some people over-tell their stories, some speak too loudly and others pace their stories too fast,” she said. “Sometimes people will get the tone wrong, or they won’t know where to end the story. I’ve seen great stories ruined by all of these things.”
“A natural storyteller knows a lot about timing,” she said. “They know when to shoot those lines and when to hold them back. They know when to give that ‘you know what I mean?’ look. They invite the audience in and it’s like the listener is in on a secret.”
Lovett spends some time in each workshop focusing on the pause. Whether it’s used for suspense, to let the audience soak up the last sentence or to emphasize the next, there’s a lot to be said for some well-placed silence.
“It changes up the whole story,” she explained. “That’s why storytellers keep a glass of water on stage. They can take a sip while the audience soaks up their words.”
The crowd will give you cues if you know where to look. A good storyteller will pick them up and may change their style on the fly to suit the listeners.
“It’s important to be able to read your audience,” Lovett said.
Did they lean in during a particularly poignant part of your story? Did they recoil when you got a bit too graphic?
Storytelling isn’t a one-size-fits-all art and you can tailor your tale to each individual audience.
Lovett suggests looking people in the eyes while you tell your tale. If you’re too shy for that, she says, it can be faked. “Find three places in the back of the room that you can focus on, so it looks like you’re making eye contact,” Lovett suggested.
Whatever your tale, whoever your audience, two techniques will always serve you well: believe in your story and believe in yourself. Even if you are a nervous wreck on stage, don’t let the audience know.
“Project confidence, even if you’re not confident,” said Lovett. “The audience shouldn’t feel like they have to take care of you.”
It helps to have a friend or two in the audience as well.
Though friendly faces can help on game day, they may not be the best to prepare with.
“I’d suggest never practicing with family; they’re the worst critics,” said Lovett. Mother dearest may be more inclined to be comforting than constructive.
While the right friends can be good critics, you may want to pick ones who didn’t live your story alongside you.
“People who were there will have their own perspective,” said Lovett. “They might also call you out on your embellishments.”
Though the tales are supposed to be true, there is room for some creative license.
“The stories in the slams may be 85 to 90 percent true, but people expect a little embellishment.”
Lovett said the rules of storytelling, like any art form, are meant to be broken — when it works.
Staff reporter David Rainville has worked at The Recorder since 2011. He covers Bernardston, Leyden, Northfield and Warwick. He can be reached at email@example.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 279.
Staff photographer Paul Franz has worked for The Recorder since 1988. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 413-772-0261 Ext. 266. His website is www.franzphoto.com.