As the longtime host of The Moth podcast and its New York-based StorySLAMs, Dan Kennedy certainly knows a good story when he hears it. Kennedy has spent the last 16 years performing his own work and listening to others share theirs, whether it’s during The Moth’s prepared main stage events or its looser, put-your-name-in-a-hat slams.
“[During] the first story I told on the main stage, I had long bangs that I let down in front of my eyes,” Kennedy says. “I was hunched over at the mic, and I was mumbling a story that I thought was very funny.”
He adds, “At some point there was a huge laugh, and I don’t really know if it was because of the story, or if it was, ‘Oh my god, why is this guy getting onstage?’ But I felt the comfort of that laugh, and I just remember thinking, 'All right. I might have to keep doing this just to be sane.'”
Recently, I asked Kennedy to share a few tips for anyone who aspires to be a better storyteller, whether it’s in front of five people at a bar or 500 in a sold-out theater. Those who follow his advice just might become addicted to the process, too:
1. MAKE SURE YOUR STORY HAS A BEGINNING, A MIDDLE, AND AN END.
“It sounds like the most obvious thing in the world,” Kennedy says of this basic guideline, which he has repeated for years. “But at the slams that I host in New York, I’m still surprised just how many times people will get up onstage and [I’ll think], 'That was a wonderful middle that guy just wandered into.'”
2. BE PREPARED.
“I saw someone at a Moth StorySLAM a couple months ago who got up said, ‘All right, so let’s see here … storytelling. Um …’” Kennedy recalls, laughing. “I mean, you don’t have to have your thing over-rehearsed—it’s really important not to have it over-rehearsed, to kind of know where you’re going and what’s gonna be interesting to other people. But boy, that got to the other extreme.”
3. KNOW YOUR STORY, BUT DON'T MEMORIZE IT.
“When someone gets up and from the get-go they’re very theatrical, very prepared, and very memorized … to me, it’s always just the kiss of death,” Kennedy says. He urges storytellers to know the beats of their stories without reciting them by heart, word for word.
4. DON'T RELY ON OFF-THE-CUFF HUMOR.
“We love standup comedy and we love funny stories, but don’t just get up and riff,” he advises. “The story onscreen, the story on the page, and the story onstage all really need the same amount of structure to keep people interested and invested.”
5. TALK TO THE AUDIENCE LIKE IT'S YOUR FRIEND.
“My favorite stories at The Moth are always the ones where, one minute in, you suddenly feel like, ‘Oh, my gosh, I’ve known this person all my life,’” Kennedy says. “For me, it’s the same if there’s 20 people or 200 or 4000. … I’m not really aware that there’s more than one person out there, I’m just talking to what feels like a friend.”
6. DON'T OVERLOOK THE SMALL STUFF.
“One of my all-time favorite stories is about a guy trying to impress a girl that lived on his block by [trying] to jump his bike over his friend,” Kennedy says. “I’d love to start a podcast called When Something Went Wrong on the Block Growing Up. It’s not the catchiest title in the world, but they’re the funniest stories every time. And those stories can be just as epic as telling a really emotionally wrought story.”
7. EMBRACE YOUR DISCOMFORT.
“You should be comfortable with your material, but it’s probably not super-natural to not be nervous about getting up in front of a lot of people,” Kennedy says. “Someone explained to me once that, as mammals, we’re wired to not draw attention to ourselves for survival. And when you go up in front of hundreds of other mammals, your body tends to tell you it’s not a good idea, and it’s just really wiring about survival.”
He adds, “I’ve been hosting and telling stories for 16 years, and there have probably been [only] two times when I haven’t been nervous. And they were terrible performances on my part.”
8. STEER CLEAR OF RANTS.
“I find that anytime I’m bringing a personal agenda to the plate, it just doesn’t make for a real good time,” Kennedy says. “If you’re deeply hurt and angry with a family member or a friend, it’s probably just gonna make for a pretty angry rant onstage versus a story.”
9. TELL THE TRUTH.
“I often use this example of a guy who told a story one time at a slam,” Kennedy says. “He was just an average, nice person like all the rest of us, as attractive as the rest of us. But he went about telling a story of how difficult it was for him to travel on business, because he was constantly being approached with advances from women. … I think the entire crowd was sitting there silently doing the math, sort of going, ‘Really? You can’t check into a chain hotel on a Wednesday? It’s difficult for you?’”
Kennedy adds, “Obviously, we as people have fun telling truths, [and] we tell it in language that recalls how epic and giant it felt to us in the moment. But there’s a big difference between that and not telling the truth. And people will know when you’re not.”