How to Tell a True Story

Spalding Gray

With our Big Blue Door Jams, which began in July, 2012, and our Big Blue Open Doors, which began in October, 2013, plus Secretly Y’all in Richmond, there are lots of venues in the region to tell a true story. How do you do it?

1. Choose good material

Good stories usually are about change, change in you, your group, or institutions you’re connected with, maybe for the better, maybe for the worse. The change can be as little as How I Got This Key Chain or as momentous as The Time I Burned Down Our House. Sometimes the story goes full circle and the original order is restored, such as My Weekend in Jail. Most importantly the change must matter to you. If you care a lot about breakfast cereal even, My Day Without Wheaties, can be pretty great.

If you’ve never told a story before start with a story where you are a major character and where you are active. There are wonderful stories about being hurt by jerks while minding our own business, or stories about life-changing events like having babies or suffering illnesses, but these are harder to tell since the real protagonists are the jerks, babies and illnesses. However, How I Changed My Tire, or Why I Was Always the Top Salesman, are difficult material too but for the opposite reason: there’s no give and take, no back and forth.

For your first story, choose material where things you did brought you from high to low, or low to high, or high to low and back to high.

This is an area where classes can be extremely helpful. Hearing the stories others tell–and you hear a lot more stories in a class than you do in a show–sparks memories, and you can immediately test those memories to see what material seems to work for you.

2. Tell the Truth & Care

Storytelling is mostly about sharing not selling, so if you’ve chosen good material that you care about, just tell the truth as best as you can and the audience will be there with you. Candor, modesty and vulnerability are far more effective than the funniest joke or the perfect metaphor. Talking in public is a major fear for most people, so the fact that you’re not only speaking in public but also sharing personal information and being honest about your weaknesses will win over your audience. That’s almost all it takes.

3. Stay In the Moment

I don’t mean this in a Zen way. I mean when you’re talking about the ride in the jeep don’t interrupt to talk about the wedding two years later. Finish with the jeep ride. Then go to the wedding. If you’re describing your first impression of your summer camp, don’t interrupt yourself to talk about how you would come to perceive the summer camp years later. Finish with one part of the story, then go to the next. Jumping around in time can work well in written stories but in spoken stories, especially if you’re new to telling them, it’s hard to do and it doesn’t add anything. You can start your story in the present and then go back to the past, but once you get there stay in chronological order.

4. More Forward and Finish

Practice aloud with a timer so you know your story fits within the time allotted. When you’re telling a story you’re not just using your time, you using other people’s too. Respect their time. If your story is too long, cut the stuff that doesn’t move the story forward.

This is another area where classes can be exceedingly helpful. When a story matters to you it can be hard to figure out by yourself what is vital. Also, classes get you used to talking so you gain a better sense of what a time limit feels like, how long an idea will take to tell, and how much material you need.

For those who are interested in classes, we run a 6-session Telling True Stories course about every two months. Email for the next session, or hit this blog’s ‘follow’ button on the main page and you’ll get updates of all our classes and events.

17 thoughts on “How to Tell a True Story

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