How to Compete at a Moth StorySLAM

The Moth just celebrated its 20th anniversary. Founder George Dawes Green, a storyteller from the American South, used to spin tales in the summer to friends, while moths flocking to his porch light. He moved to New York and took his tradition along. Now, there are 500 storytelling programs each year in the U.S. and abroad. The Moth Radio Hour is heard on 400 radio stations and is available as a podcast, with 1 million listeners.

One of the ways to get your story told is to compete at a StorySlam. You can also call The Moth, pitch your story, and see if they might be interested in helping you develop it. Winners of StorySlams go on to compete at GrandSlams.

The closest StorySlam for me is located in Los Angeles, a few hours north. I made the trek last year, but didn’t get randomly selected as a contestant. There are a lot of people who want to tell stories. This week, I tried again and got picked. Here are a few things I learned.

Arrive Early and Sign In

The LA StorySlam is often held at Los Globos, a small club built in the 1930’s, located on Sunset Boulevard. Parking is challenging, so it’s best to take a Lyft or Uber. You can also purchase alcohol, so that’s another reason to get a ride. Tickets should be bought online prior to the show, since seating is limited.

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The event is for those 21 and older. Once you show your ID and get checked in, if you want to compete, find the person handing out pre-competition waivers. Fill in your info, give it back, and watch it get folded and tossed into a bag fast filling up with hopefuls.  There are only ten speaking slots, and there are always many more than that who want to share a story. The event is audio and video recorded.


Judges work in three teams of three. Some team members know each other, some don’t. Many have never judged a StorySlam before. I’m a speaker used to the standardized evaluations of Toastmasters International, so this is the Wild West. That said, any judging of speeches always has a subjective factor. Each judging team gives a score, and the person with the highest average wins.

The Mechanics of Speaking

The LA venue is a medium-sized room with a bar. The stage is small. If you’re a speaker used to walking around and using gestures, this isn’t your gig.

If you’re one of the fortunate people called as a contestant, you get on stage and stand still before a microphone, with a supernova light shining in your eyes. It’s rather like being asked to tell an amusing story for a sadist.


You should wrap your story at around 5 minutes, or just past. A person playing a flute sounds a lilting tune at 5 minutes. If you have the audacity to run on to 6 minutes, the  sound that’s played is akin to a honking goose slammed in a door. Your scores go down if you venture too far past the 5 minute timeframe. Practice timing your talk beforehand, and cut as necessary.

Once you’re finished, you pick one of the folded waivers out of a bag to determine the next contestant, and wait for your scores.

What to Talk About

 Moth stories are TRUE personal stories about YOU. At each StorySlam, there’s a theme that must be an integral part of your story. The first time I went to an event, a man got on stage to talk about losing his health, house and wife, and to cry. It had nothing to do with the event. The Moth looks for personal stories you’ve experienced, not stand-up comedy or events experienced by other people.

The Moth website has details on events, allows you to get the theme ahead of time to prepare, and to listen to examples of stories.

Thoughts on Content

 Like life, Moth stories can be heartbreaking. Must you talk about a dead pet, loved one with cancer, your own illness or other tragedy to win? No. Vivid descriptions, true feeling, humor and story structure (a beginning, middle and end without meandering) assist your presentation. As I tell the speakers I train, don’t memorize. Think of your speech in bullet points, so you don’t freeze if you forget something.

Can I tell you what type of content will win? No. Each StorySlam brings so many different types of people and tales, it’s difficult to say which story will be the favorite.

Remember, the audience is rooting for you, even if you don’t give the performance you wished. Have fun!

The Moth creators are fond of saying, “You either have a good time, or you have a good story.”

Good luck!



          When it comes to making an impression in a speech, one of the most important things to remember is that people don’t care about facts.

What? That can’t be right! You might be thinking.

Here’s an example: I recently heard a speech by a businessman who owns his own company. He told us about how he started it and detailed all the services it provided, giving us all the facts and figures. Did I care? No.


It was BORING.

          If you want to capture the attention of your audience, don’t put them to sleep with facts. Here are some tips on how to keep people interested and, most important, awake.


          Once upon a time…

          I am an invisible man…

          This is the saddest story I have ever heard…

These are considered some of the best opening lines of books. Why? Because they capture the imagination. People are wired to hear stories. It goes back to sitting around in the evening, before radio, TV, the Internet and Netflix, when entertainment was storytelling.

Use stories to tell your facts.

Compare this: “More than one in three women are married before the age of 15 worldwide.” to:

“Sonali Khatun was just 14 years old when her parents told her she would be getting married. She dropped out of school. Her wedding was arranged in just 14 days.
“She did not want to [get married], but we forced her, because in villages, when an adolescent girl is unmarried, people start to talk,” Matiura Bibi, Khatun’s mother, told the American Jewish World Service, an advocacy group. “After the marriage, we realized the boy was not nice. He was suspicious of Sonali. He started to control her and argue with her. I understood the marriage wouldn’t last.” Sonali got a divorce and faced being taunted by the girls of the village, but she is now an independent, successful working woman.”  Read more here:

By telling facts through a story, it gives the audience someone or something to visualize and identify with. By using stories that include facts, your speech will resonate with the audience, causing it to be remembered.


Now that it’s election time, we see candidates who are distorting the truth for the purposes of furthering their campaigns.

Here are some examples:

Arab Americans cheered during the Sept. 11th attacks.” – Donald Trump (untrue)

Then United States is going to accept 250,000 Syrian refugees” – Carly Fiorina (untrue)

Hispanic and teen unemployment went up under President Obama.” – Ted Cruz (untrue)

The handling of secret emails through a private server was permitted” – Hillary Clinton (untrue)

          “Climate Change is directly related to the growth of terrorism” – Bernie Sanders (overstating)

Studies have shown that misinformation has lingering effects, even if a falsehood is quickly corrected. This is especially true if the “fact” ties in with a person’s beliefs and resonates with them.


We’ve all seen items going around the Internet claiming to be “facts.” A famous one from 2014 was a woman who claimed to have three breasts. She circulated a photo claiming she’d had a 3rd breast implant in the center. In actuality, it was a prosthesis. However, this “fact” did lead to her recording a song and music video in Florida.

Why have the three-breasted woman and the not-candid candidates captured the imagination? The things being said aren’t true, but they evoked emotion. If you listener feels an emotional reaction, what’s being said will resonate more strongly with them.


          Let’s go back to politics. A master of media attention is Donald Trump. He says things that are outrageous and has been discourteous to other candidates during debates. What has this done? It’s put a lot of focus on him because the media likes sensational stories– and so do we.

When Darren LaCroix won the Toastmasters World Championship of Public Speaking, he walked out on the stage– and fell down. He stayed down for a purposefully long time, making the audience uncomfortable.

This was a masterful move. An audience views new information from the “reptile” brain, the part that processes information through a prism of fear and boredom. They’re afraid of new ideas, but they want to have their imagination captured. What Darren LaCroix did was shocking and, thus, excited the audience. It got everyone’s attention.  


          Think about your speech content and how to incorporate an unexpected moment into the presentation. It will keep your audience’s attention and make your presentation memorable.