Storytelling: Vulnerability and the Courage to Talk About Failure.
August 26, 2014
The Irish Times has a good, short piece on The Moth, the not-for-profit organization dedicated to the art and craft of storytelling. The Moth started in George Dawes Green's living room in 1997, but soon the storytelling club founded by Green started hosting events in cafes and clubs throughout New York City. The name "The Moth" came from the idea that people are attracted to stories the way moths are attracted to a flame. From The Moth website: "Each show starts with a theme, and the storytellers explore it, often in unexpected ways. Since each story is true and every voice authentic, the shows dance between documentary and theater, creating a unique, intimate, and often enlightening experience for the audience." The storytellers are usually novice storytellers who have something interesting to share. Yet, The Moth directors work with the speakers before each show to help them find their stories and shape them. The focus is on meaning and quality but also on naturalness and authenticity, therefore, no notes or scripts are allowed.
Below is a wonderful story presented at The Moth in 2009 by Malcolm Gladwell. It's well worth your time watching.
The Times article quotes the New Yorker writer and essayist Adam Gopnik as to what makes for a good story. “A good story has to be extremely particular and peculiar to your life. It has to have an element of singularity and yet – and this is the alchemy and paradox of storytelling – it has to be something immediately universal, part of something that we all experience,” Gopnik says. A great story is never just about you or something that happened to you, no matter how seemingly interesting the characters or events may be. A great story, no matter the subject, is always really about them (the audience) with a universal appeal. The theme must get at something truly human. A cautionary tale of greed and excess or an inspiring narrative of resilience and persistence. The plot of your story — the events and the order in which you arranged them — are important but only to the degree that they illuminate your message or theme and illustrate clearly the arc of change.
Vulnerability and the courage to talk about failure.
Some of the best stories are about failures and defeats. The Moth founder and writer George Dawes Green says in the Times article, "Nobody wants to hear about your triumphs. We want to hear about what a fool you are, because that’s what we are." Most people, however, do not want to talk about their failures or their struggles with their weaknesses. But your honestly and willingness to be vulnerable is what draws your audience in. Though the stories are well planned and have a solid structure, The Moth's Lea Thau says in this Nieman Storyboard interview that the delivery is more about sharing than performing. "The one demand is that you are willing to step out there and be completely present with the audience and say, 'I am not performing something to you, for you, or at you, I’m sharing something with you in this moment that is true for me.' When people do that, the audience becomes so invested in them. The audience understands how inherently terrifying it is. Most people say it feels like they’re standing naked." The naked approach is what connects with audiences.
Your own storytelling situation may be very different from being on stage at The Moth, but there are some things we can takeaway. Here are just a few things to remember when crafting and delivering your story. Your story must:
• Be Particular to your life
• Be Peculiar
• Have a universal theme
• Expose a vulnerability or a weakness
• Illustrate a transformation
• Be naturally told with energy, engagement, and presence
No struggle, no story. No obstacles to reach your goal? Who wants to hear about that? Where is the lesson in that? Moth is a great storytelling resource. People are indeed attracted to story the way a moth is attracted to the flame...and we can all get better at telling our own stories.