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The Moth’s Dan Kennedy Shares 9 Ways to Sharpen Your Storytelling Skills

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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.”

New episodes of The Moth podcast are released weekly; head to iTunes to subscribe. To learn more and see a calendar of upcoming Moth events, head to themoth.org.

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15 Podcasts That Will Make You Feel Smarter
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It's easy to feel overwhelmed by all the podcast options out there, but narrowing down your choices to the titles that will teach you something while you listen is a good place to start. If you're interested in learning more about philosophy, science, linguistics, or history, here are podcasts to add to your queue.

1. THE HABITAT

The Habitat is the closest you can get to listening to a podcast recorded on Mars. At the start of the series, five strangers enter a dome in a remote part of Hawaii meant to simulate a future Mars habitat. Every part of their lives over the next year, from the food they eat to the spacesuits they wear when they step outside, is designed to mimic the conditions astronauts will face if they ever reach the red planet. The experiment was a way for NASA to test plans for a manned mission to Mars without leaving Earth. The podcast, which is produced by Gimlet media and hosted by science writer Lynn Levy, ends up unfolding like a season of the Real World with a science fiction twist.

2. STUFF YOU SHOULD KNOW

Can’t pick a topic to educate yourself on? Stuff You Should Know from How Stuff Works is the podcast for you. In past episodes, hosts Chuck Bryant and Josh Clark (both writers at How Stuff Works) have discussed narwhals, Frida Kahlo, LSD, Pompeii, hoarding, and Ponzi schemes. And with three episodes released a week, you won’t go long without learning about a new subject.

3. THE ALLUSIONIST

Language nerds will find a kindred spirit in Helen Zaltzman. In each episode of her Radiotopia podcast The Allusionist, the former student of Latin, French, and Old English guides listeners through the exciting world of linguistics. Past topics include swearing, small talk, and the differences between British and American English.

4. PHILOSOPHIZE THIS!

Listening to all of Philosophize This! is cheaper than taking a philosophy class—and likely more entertaining. In each episode, host Stephen West covers different thinkers and ideas from philosophy history in an approachable and informative way. The show proceeds in chronological order, starting with the pre-Socratic era and leading up most recently to Jacques Derrida.

5. MORE PERFECT

In 2016, Radiolab, one of the most popular and well-established educational podcasts out there, launched a show called More Perfect. Led by Radiolab host Jad Abumrad, each episode visits a different Supreme Court case or event that helped shape the highest court in the land. Because of that, the podcast ends up being about a lot more than just the Supreme Court, exploring topics like police brutality, gender equality, and free speech online.

6. SLOW BURN

The Watergate scandal was such a important chapter in American history that it has its own suffix—but when asked to summarize the events, many people may draw a blank. Slow Burn, a podcast from Slate, gives listeners a refresher. In eight episodes, host Leon Neyfakh tells the story of the Nixon’s demise as it unfolded, all while asking whether or not citizens would be able to recognize a Watergate-sized scandal if it happened today.

7. LETTERS FROM WAR

Instead of using a broad scope to examine World War II, the Washington Post podcast Letters From War focuses on hundreds of letters exchanged by four brothers fighting in the Pacific during the period. Living U.S. military veterans tell the sibling's story while reflecting on their own experiences with war.

8. LEVAR BURTON READS

Just because you’re a grown-up doesn’t mean you have to miss out on the soothing sound of LeVar Burton’s voice reading to you. The former host of Reading Rainbow now hosts LeVar Burton Reads, a podcast from Stitcher aimed at adults. In each episode, he picks a different piece of short fiction to narrate: Just settle into a comfortable spot and listen to him tell stories by authors like Haruki Murakami, Octavia Butler, and Ursula K. Le Guin.

9. BRAINS ON!

Brains On! is an educational podcast for young audiences, but adults have something to gain from listening as well. Every week, host Molly Bloom is joined by a new kid co-host who helps her explore a different topic. Tune in for answers to questions like "What makes paint stick?" and "How do animals breathe underwater?"

10. SCIENCE VS

There’s a lot of misinformation out there—if you’re determined to sort out fact from fiction, it can be hard to know where to start. The team of “friendly fact checkers” at the Science Vs podcast from Gimlet is here to help. GMOs, meditation, birth control, Bigfoot—these are just a few of the topics that are touched upon in the weekly show. The goal of each episode is to replace any preconceived notions you have with hard science.

11. FLASH FORWARD

No one knows for sure what the future holds, but Flash Forward lays out the more interesting possibilities. Some of the potential futures that host and producer Rose Eveleth explores are more probable than others (a future where no one knows which news sources to trust isn’t hard to imagine; one where space pirates drag a second moon into orbit perhaps is), but each one is built on real science.

12. HIDDEN BRAIN

What motivates the everyday choices we make? That’s the question Shankar Vedantam tries to answer on the NPR podcast Hidden Brain. The show looks at how various unconscious patterns shape our lives, like what we wear and who we choose to spend time with.

13. PART-TIME GENIUS

The fact that it’s hosted by Mental Floss founders Will Pearson and Mangesh Hattikudur isn’t the only reason we love Part-Time Genius. The podcast from How Stuff Works wades into topics you didn’t know you were curious about, like the origins of Nickelodeon and the hidden secrets at the Vatican. Each episode will leave you feeling educated and entertained at the same time.

14. ASTRONOMY CAST

It’s a big universe out there—if you want to learn as much about it as possible, start with Astronomy Cast. Fraser Cain, publisher of the popular site Universe Today, and Dr. Pamela L. Gay, director of the virtual research facility CosmoQuest, host the podcast. They cover a wide range of topics, from the animals we’ve sent to orbit to the color of the universe.

15. SCIENCE OF HAPPINESS

The Science of Happiness podcast from PRI is here to improve your life, one 20-minute episode at a time. Science has proven that adopting certain practices, like mindfulness and gratitude, can make us happier—as does letting go of less unhealthy patterns like grudges and stressful thinking. With award-winning professor Dacher Keltner as your host, you can learn how to incorporate these science-backed strategies for happiness into your own life.

S-Town Podcast Is Being Turned Into a Movie

S-Town, a seven-part podcast from Serial and This American Life, has all the trappings of a binge-worthy story. It all started when a man from the tiny town of Woodstock, Alabama asked a reporter to investigate a local man from a wealthy family who allegedly boasted he had gotten away with murder.

As for what happens next, “someone else ends up dead, sparking a nasty feud, a hunt for hidden treasure, and an unearthing of the mysteries of one man's life,” reads the 2017 podcast’s synopsis, without giving too much away.

Now, that riveting story is being turned into a movie with This American Life’s participation, IndieWire reports. Participant Media acquired the rights to the S-Town podcast, and negotiations are underway to get playwright Samuel Hunter and director Tom McCarthy on board. McCarthy is perhaps best known for directing and co-writing 2015's Oscar-winning Spotlight; he also co-wrote Up and was an executive producer and director for the controversial Netflix series 13 Reasons Why.

S-Town was downloaded over 10 million times over a period of four days after its release, and it received a Peabody Award for the radio/podcast category, according to IndieWire. Just last month, HBO and Sky announced they would be releasing a documentary series about Adnan Syed, the focus of the first season of the Serial podcast, which is developed by This American Life.

In case you missed S-Town when it premiered, you can go back and listen to it here.

[h/t IndieWire]

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