A week or so ago I alluded to a big deal that was coming up.
And now I am basking in the milky, sublimely-soothing goodness of not having to worry about it anymore.
See last night I stood up in front of a group of around 70 people and told a story. And public speaking is something incredibly alien to me. Apart from that tiny bit of stage banter I found myself doing rather hopelessly in my rock n roll days, and my penchant for talking rather too much shit at parties, I have never done anything even remotely like this before.
Coupled with this petrifying fact, the actual story I had decided to tell was a very, very, very, very tough tale. I won’t tell you what the subject of this story was because it is too goddamn mother-fucking personal — which I realise seems ridiculous seeing as I just told it to a crowded room of my Brisbane peers — but that’s just my prerogative. Sorry about that.
Luckily it was a funny story, but a shocking real story all the same. And in case you are wondering — I think it kinda, maybe went amazingly well. (I am so, so relieved.)
I nailed all my gags and I only forgot about 1% of what I had planned to say but somehow made up for it with a few a ad-libbed jokes.
Basically the event in question was called “Yarn” and this was the very first time it had been staged. Yarn was set up by two old friends of mine and is apparently modelled on “The Moth” which is big in the States. Their official bio says: “Yarn: Stories spun in Brisbane is a bi-monthly storytelling event, featuring true stories, told live and without notes. Yarn will be held in bars, cafes, and homes around Brisbane showcasing the best parts of Brisbane while enjoying the best Brisbane stories.”
When I heard that Yarn was starting up I said I was interested, and in saying “I was interested” I didn’t quite realise how BIG the audience might be. And suddenly I got the call-up – only a week or so out from the event – so I think I was perhaps a late replacement.
Anyway I gave the organisers a rough idea about the subject I was proposing to talk about, half-expecting them to say, “No way!” But they seemed quite keen. So I explained that it was probably worse than they might be imagining and I’d come along to one of the rehearsals/feedback sessions they were running, tell my story, and give them one last chance to change their mind. And at that rehearsal I listened to everyone else’s story and then, quite a bit nervously, told mine which was just so different and so out-there compared to the others. But the organisers were cool, but a bit gob-smacked at the same time, and said, more or less, “go for it!”
And so I feel a little wiser now about speaking in public and telling stories live — so maybe I can give you all some ideas on how I approached this massive ordeal.
First of all I practiced telling the story A LOT. It was not just a conscious effort to practice, it was more about the fact I was impossibly distracted about this rapidly approaching Death-Star -of-drama and just couldn’t help but obsess about it.
It’s the same mental malaise I would have gone through if I had a rock show coming up — but I didn’t have a guitar to hide behind.
So I practiced telling the story out loud and practiced in my head. Every spare moment I had I found myself telling it to myself from beginning to end. And I actually practiced in front of a person on a few occasions – not just to get used to the act of speaking, but also to get feedback. And one of these performances led to quite a drastic re-write only 3 days out.
Ultimately the point I’m trying to make here is that I took it pretty seriously. If I was going to get through this I needed to be hyper-prepared. And those of you out there that know the story will understand even more so – why being so prepared was so crucial.
And when I practised, I let myself stray from the “script” just to get new ideas, new jokes or to improve the language. Sometimes these worked and sometimes they didn’t. The stuff that worked I noted down and the stuff that didn’t work I remembered too so I wasn’t tempted to go down that shitty path again.
But I made myself promise to stick as close as possible to the script on the actual night lest I go into some disastrous tangent or have the story frozen by not being able to remember a very specific word utterly necessary to articulating that tangent.
So we all know stories need a beginning, a middle and an end. The middle was the easy part, but the introduction was harder to nail down. Eventually I settled on this theme:
“When I was a kid and watching Play School, and they were doing that ‘through the windows’ thing, I used to believe that they had cue’d up a different story behind each window and it was actually up to the presenter of the show as to what window we got to go through. And I couldn’t understand why we weren’t always going through the arched window. ‘Cause the arch window was the coolest window and – you have a cool window, you get a cool story – right? So in that spirit I am going to attempt to tell you an ‘arched window’ type of story tonight, despite the fact my brain is *screaming* at me to tell you a ‘square window’ story. And it’s a story I have to tell. It’s been eating a hole in my brain like it was acid, desperately trying to find a way out….”
And this gave me scope to use Play School as a running gag throughout the story and a bit of glue to keep everything together.
A crucial bit of feedback I received was that the story had no proper end, no purpose — just an end to me talking. Because the story had no “arc” and was essentially just a series of events that snowballed I struggled with this bit. But then I thought, “having no arc IS the arc.” And an ending doesn’t need to be very long or profound or drawn-out.
So when it came time to step up to the mic I did a little riff about the room, perhaps to make it look like I wasn’t about to deliver such a scripted tale. Part of my script-regimentation was to divide up the story into a big bunch of very precise stanzas. But then I told myself I could ONLY ad-lib in-between the stanzas, but never within that stanza. And that really helped. The other little trick I did was to reference one of the other stories that had just been told — and that got the biggest laugh I think.
I was really glad the mic was held in a stand because I was so worried my hands would be shaking if I had to physically hold a mic. And with that freedom I could use my arms to animate the story and also get up really close to the mic to accentuate important words.
I also put a lot of my personality into the story. I thought that was really important so the listeners could know me, understand me, maybe. And then hopefully, just perhaps they would care about me — the principal protagonist in the story — and that would help them care about the story all the way to the end.
It did feel a bit like I was doing a stand-up comedy routine, rather than actual storytelling, but I reckon that was the vibe – so I just went with it.
So yeah. Phew!