How to Tell a Story the Right Way

The stories you’ve been telling haven’t actually been stories. According to The Moth, an NYC-based storytelling program, you’ve been slinging anecdotes.

Sung Han

When he jokes about the heavy snow falling outside, Peter Aguero‘s chuckle sounds like a quiet echo in a deep cavern. But now, after the champion storyteller, a big man with a big beard and piercing brown eyes, sits down and breathes deeply, then begins his story, his voice becomes waves growling along a stony beach. Now it moves as if pulled by mysterious, unstoppable tides. There is a rhythmic run-on that whitecaps into a surprising, lighthearted happenstance. He slows and umms and treads water in the backstory, context, scene. Then he’s roaring forward again, uncoiling words easily, breaking them against the shoreline of the narrative and pulling back, rolling in again, in unceasing tempo. He’s not overtly rehearsed, just confident. This is his story, owned within himself, epic and continent-shifting.

And it’s all about… getting some chick he calls “Doctor Fine” to sit on his lap.

We love stories. They’re the telling of little bits of us, bits that we bring to bear on people we know and love or want to know and love. The narrative arc dances through our synapses; and we are, after all, each the protagonist in our own epic tale.

Which is why it’s so disheartening to hear that, according to The Moth, an NYC-based not-for-profit storytelling organization, we’ve mostly been slinging anecdotes, not stories, all along.

“Usually when you’re at a bar telling a story, that’s usually just, ‘here’s this crazy thing that happened to me,'” Aguero explains. He’s been telling stories at The Moth for a long time, and telling stories his whole life. He speaks about them like an old priest speaks about the gospel. “That’s just an anecdote,” he says. “Stories are an anecdote within the context of your life. It’s the crazy thing that happened to you or the mundane thing that happened to you — whatever — as long as it was a catalyst for some sort of change inside.”

Aguero, who’s won The Moth’s championship GrandSLAM and plies his gravelly laugh and mumbly wit as the host of the organization’s monthly StorySLAM event, is making the small but vital distinction that lies at the heart of The Moth’s art form. The idea has driven them from a group of friends shilling tales on a screened-in porch to an active community with a championship, monthly performances, and a radio show that won a Peabody Award in 2011.

“If the story is about a house fire, it’s not that the house caught on fire is the interesting part. It’s what did you choose to grab first.” – Peter Aguero

Here’s where the The Moth is insistent: Without that personal change, an anecdote lacks a soul. It tells the audience only the framework of an experience, but nothing of what it really meant. You may have felt the result: sharing a viscerally important moment that, when told aloud, loses its oomph in translation. No one feels the change. Conversation drifts on to the next topic. Sorry, friend.

Those extra pieces — change and choice — both define a story and make it worthwhile. “The example I always use,” Aguero says, “is if the story is about a house fire, it’s not that the house caught on fire is the interesting part. It’s what did you choose to grab first. That lets us know something about you.”

This is part of what makes the Moth StorySLAM, its entry-level event, so incredible. The same people who stood silently on the subway, scanned the produce aisle, and stared at computer screens all day long walk up on stage and, with little introduction, narrate amazing or funny or odd experiences with deep perspective. More is conveyed in their allotted five minutes onstage than in hours of timid small talk or months of tepid workday socializing. “It takes this person and it puts this person into a context, into a human context,” says Larry Rosen, who’s taught at The Moth’s outreach programs as a Community Program Manager for six years. Rosen is a teacher at heart. When I ask him to tell us a story, he defers to Aguero, but he has a different strength: the perspective that comes from not working the story but instead helping others improve. He thinks like a listener. “You know, we’re very quick to judge people just based on anything — the little that we know about them. And somehow knowing the context, like, what the person has been through, also gives us a greater sense of how to relate to that person.”

“I’ve seen people tell stories about things that are really difficult for them. And you know, when they are telling the story, they are a little bit taller. They don’t have that stuff weighing down on them as deeply.”

But the reason for telling a story goes well beyond entertaining the audience, and even the power of relating, in fact. People who’ve told stories in The Moth’s style insist that storytelling that deals with important experiences in our lives is in fact cathartic and healthy. Rosen cites the release of pleasure chemicals in the brain; Aguero is a little more concrete. “I’ve seen people tell stories about things that are really difficult for them. And you know, when they are telling the story, they are a little bit taller. They don’t have that stuff weighing down on them as deeply.” This isn’t easy, Aguero admits, but it is vital. “We’re all a product of every experience we’ve had, and some of it is good, and some of it is trauma, and some of it is really terrible. And you know, if you don’t deal with it — if you don’t confront it, you’ll never get over it, and parts of it will own your life moving forward.”

Storytelling isn’t therapy, he says. “But it is very therapeutic.”

But amid all these distinctions and requirements, how does Aguero’s tale about the good Doctor Fine qualify as a story and not an anecdote? Turns out it’s about a lot more than sleeping with some girl. Beyond showing Aguero’s mastery of the form, broader than his eloquence, humor, tempo, that beautiful voice, and his conflict — Aguero the party animal, Aguero the boor, Aguero the lecher — it deals with a moment that’s hugely important in his life. “Doctor Fine”, it turns out, ended up becoming Mrs. Aguero.

Aguero makes telling a personal, silky-smooth story look easy, but of course it isn’t. It takes an enormous amount of work, a commitment to introspection, a big pair of cojones — and maybe even a little trickery. But at its core, the storytelling that the Moth practices has but a few relatively simple facets. Aguero and Rosen taught us how.

1 Pick a moment that’s important to you. This is easier than you’d think. You may already be telling anecdotes about this moment already, or maybe you’ve kept it closed off somewhere, but either way, you’ll know it when you’re on the spot: the thought of it builds a pit in your stomach or gets your heart rate up or makes you smile uncontrollably. Think on it briefly. You may think you’ve worked it over in your head or out loud to death, but consider it on new terms. This is where you’ll truly start — with an exploration of yourself in the past. “We like to say there’s a difference between what happened in your story and what your story is about,” says Rosen. “What your story is about is where the significance for you lives.” This personal significance and how the moment forced some sort of change in you will be your focus. Who were you before the event? Who were you afterward?

2 Understand the story and its parts. “Our form of storytelling really follows the same kind of pattern that every narrative follows,” says Rosen. That can be broken down any number of ways, but Rosen divides it roughly thus in his workshops: there’s the “Once Upon a Time” section, where you open the story and tell the listener what they need to know about who you were. “Then One Day…” pulls the focus tighter on the actual event and can also be considered the “rising action.” The “Scene of Change” can occur anywhere throughout the tale, but generally it is the crux of the action — when something had to change. Here, Rosen recommends painting the details — inward and outward ones — to create a “movie-like” experience, planting your audience deeply into the moment. The final section of the story can be many things, but to be effective, it must make clear how you’ve changed and why that matters. Not every story will include all these sections in this order or at all, but they’re a good place to start.

3 Focus on the right details. The Moth forces storytellers to be concise and vigorous by using a tight time limit — at a StorySLAM, a bell rings after five minutes, at which point you’d best be on your way to the story’s exit. You won’t always be confined by these rules, but generally, keeping things short focuses and sharpens a story. The litmus test should be whether the details are feeding the arc or the journey you’re taking the listeners on. Or even better: are you keeping everyone on the edge of their seat?

But what will you pare down to? Aguero has two keys. First, there’s dwelling in difficulty, which seems to follow with Hemingway‘s advice to write by simply sitting down at a typewriter and bleeding. It’s a little bit terrifying. “Really live in the difficult moments,” he says. “Don’t skip over them. When that thing has you in an emotional turmoil, tell us about it — tell us how you feel. Really kind of swim in it, because that’s where the juicy, universal stuff is. That’s where you can really get to the stuff that makes us all human.”

Then there’s building your story’s world so that listeners can relive the experience with you, richly. Be lavish with your details: “What do you see?” Aguero asks. “What’s the temperature? What do you smell? What are you wearing? What are the colors around you? What’s the time of year? If you’re in a room, where is the window?”

4 Tell the truth. You’re not a fisherman, so don’t present lies as stories. It’s less about morality and more about the way skirting the truth can distort a story’s meaning, Aguero explains. “A lot of times you’ll see people that when they start to tell a story, they are too concerned with making sure that they look like the good guy or that they are afraid of kind of showcasing any vulnerability. Really good storytellers that do it consistently show a moment where they are vulnerable — where they are kind of naked in front of you.”

You may have felt the result of this before: tense as a story may be, trust in the teller lends an odd sort of bliss. “As engrossed as you get in the story, there is a part of you that just relaxes because you know you’re in good hands,” says Rosen. “You know, the person is talking about something that really meant something to him or to her.” On the other hand, “If a person is making it up, there is a disconnect, and the best I can tell you is that it’s a kind of a chemical thing, you know, that you can feel it.” Rosen also admits that after years of working in theater, truth was one of the main reasons he was drawn to The Moth. “After all of these years of making things up,” he says, “suddenly I discovered the simple telling of the truth, and that was just really fun.”

5 Practice. Some Moth storytellers write their stories down, but most don’t. Both Rosen and Aguero advise against memorizing. “I feel like a story is a living, breathing thing, and if you write it down and memorize it and recite it, that you’re not telling it anymore,” Aguero says. “You are choking the life out of it.” On the spectrum of techniques, they both suggest somewhere in the middle, between something tightly crafted and put together and something that’s totally winged. Jotting down details — what time of year it was, how old you were — can help you remember who you were when the story happened.

Which leads us to the next point: you need to practice your ass off to be really good. As the Moth’s website recommends: “Tell [your story] to your plants but know that they are a tough audience. Revise. Rework. Curse your plants for not believing in you! Revamp. Finesse.” Above all, remember that this work is just as much for you as your future audience. “The first time I tell a story and the twentieth time I tell a story, I should be able to be able to make discoveries in the moment, and that’s exciting for me as the person telling it,” Aguero says. Listen to him tell his story in the video above. The guy’s worked hard at preparing his story, and it shows.

6 Tell it. That is the point, after all. Wield it wisely — you’ve no longer got a bar anecdote on your hands. You’ve got a weaponized memory, one that will change the way people think about you and themselves. A Moth StorySLAM is the perfect place to start, but Aguero recommends a wide range of events and groups, popping up around the country, all with a love of the tale. You could even gather friends and family for a story night. Maybe you’ll create some new stories while you’re at it.

The Moth is a New York-based storytelling program with monthly classes, performances, outreach programs and a radio show. Learn more on their website, here.

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