Rules of the road: Story Slam Dayton

I enjoy a good story and I am a student at heart. The first time I attended Story Slam Dayton, I found myself not only drawn into the stories, but also soaking up the process of storytelling, and the etiquette of Story Slam, a monthly open mic storytelling event. Here’s what I learned, how I interpret, and how I practice story etiquette for Dayton’s slams:

First: A story should have some definition and structure.

  • A story must be owned by the storyteller, i.e. a story about something that happened directly to the storyteller not someone else.
  • A story must be true. Stories are, in my writer’s jargon, memoir not fiction.
  • A story should pertain to the evening’s theme, announced one month in advance.
  • A story should have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Duh. But, not so duh, if you are concerned with getting your story completed in the limited time allowed.
  • A story is told in 5 minutes; reasoning that it’s long enough to tell a good story, and long enough for an audience to listen to a bad story. (I almost always have trouble fitting my stories into a 5 minute window.)

”If you want me to speak for an hour, I am ready today.” “If you want me to speak for just a few minutes, it will take me a few weeks to prepare.” – Mark Twain, master storyteller

Second: Storytelling is a performance.

  • Each story should be told only once per venue.
  • Consider audience appeal – will the story make the audience laugh, or gasp, or cry, or think? Sometimes a story will make the audience laugh and gasp and cry and think.
  • Stories are told from memory, not read. No notes or reminders or props allowed. And, in case it needs to be said, no writing on hands, or tucking notes up a sleeve, or under a ball cap bill. Maintaining eye contact and spontaneity helps connect to the audience and keeps the telling fresh.
  • The event is “open mic.” Anyone who wants to tell a story throws their name in a bucket.
  • No storyteller is guaranteed a spot on stage, only 10 storytellers share each evening. Storytellers only know when and if they will take the stage when a new name is drawn.
  • House lights go dark. The storyteller, illuminated only by spotlight, stands behind a single standing microphone.
  • A storyteller needs to know how to adjust the microphone to their height but should not move or touch the microphone after adjusting.
  • The spotlight is harsh. Some seemingly opaque clothes are much too thin to withstand the spotlight. (I wanted to whisper to a few of the women that the full outline of their bras was visible from the audience. Alas, that would be over helping. As someone in ongoing recovery, #copterdetox, I need to respect their decision to share of themselves. But in the spirit of full transparency, that is not something I wish to share of myself. If you notice a spotlight issue when I’m on stage telling a story, please let me know.)
  • An MC opens and closes the evening with stories of their own. Really, really good stories.
  • For additional ideas about story structure and a few warnings about content, also consider The MOTH’s Storytelling Tips & Tricks, and their critical request: “Please use our stage to practice civility and respect. Please don’t include racism, homophobia, misogyny or any form of hate speech.”

“Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign. But stories can also be used to empower, and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people. But stories can also repair that broken dignity.” - Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, author

Third: Story Slam is an open-mic storytelling CONTEST.

  • Three sets of judges listen from the audience.
  • Each set of judges combines their impressions to give one score per storyteller, recorded on a card or paper that is flashed to the MC after each story is told.
  • All scores are recorded on a white board kept on stage throughout the evening.
  • People who are adept at mental math know who has won before it is announced.

(Update 2019-2020 season, at Dayton’s Slam, scores are collected but no longer displayed on stage, leaving the element of surprise until the winner is announced.)

Stories build bridges. When the story ends and the teller’s voice is silenced, the bridge between teller and listener remains. – Elaine Blanchard

Finally: My favorite stories open a window to life.

  • After listening to stories that first night, and confirmed over many months of listening, my favorite stories crack open a window by sharing a personal truth or conviction: a weakness, an earned strength, a personal fear, life value, trauma, failure, courageous act, lesson learned, hard won success. In other words, the teller shares their vulnerabilities with the audience through story.
  • My personal favorites are the stories still stuck in my consciousness well after they’re told. Sometimes those stories are serious, sometimes gross, sometimes hilarious. But, always, stories that stick are ones that give me something to ponder. And, as a storyteller, there’s nothing more gratifying for me than someone who later shares that my story stuck with them, that they are still thinking about it a day, a week, a month later.

The Slam is an open-mic night in a comedy club, but the stories make me feel as though I’m sitting around a table at an intimate dinner party among friends. That’s what keeps me coming back.


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