Arts & Culture

How to Tell a Great Story, According to the Moth

The venerated storytelling organization, which turns twenty-five this year, is here to help you rule the front porch

Photo: Rhajaé Carroll

The audience reacts at a Mainstage Moth performance.

In the long history of humans telling stories, the Moth has been around for one beat of a paper-thin wing. Safe to say it has advanced the art form: Since its 1997 inception, the beloved nonprofit has broadcast more than 50,000 personal stories—delivered out loud and unscripted by celebrities, comedians, Nobel prize winners, and regular folks—across a variety of platforms, including a stage show, a podcast, open-mic events, and the Peabody Award–winning Moth Radio Hour

As stories go, the origin of the Moth is a good one. Its founder, George Dawes Green, grew up swapping yarns with neighbors on a friend’s porch in St. Simons Island, Georgia, as moths fluttered around the lights. Later, living in New York City, he longed to re-create that feeling of intimate connection in a land of shallow cocktail-party banter, and an idea for a storytelling showcase took flight. 

photo: courtesy of the moth
Catherine Burns.

Today another Southerner, Catherine Burns, serves as the organization’s artistic director. Burns hails from Alexander City, Alabama, where (as she’s shared onstage) her mother once hosted Harper Lee, in town to research a book, for lunch. Burns admits Southerners often have a flair for off-the-cuff oration: “There’s a culture of openness and willingness to share that tends to bring out amazing stories,” she says of the South, recalling the time her Boston University dorm buddies chastised her for chatting up strangers in the grocery store.

The Moth’s down-home roots are on display in the mobile house with a big porch that’s set to travel across the region for the inaugural Moth Pop-up Porch Tour, stopping first in Tulsa (September 21–25) and heading to Dallas, Jackson, New Orleans, Birmingham, and Atlanta. At the pop-up porch, the public can meet Moth staff members, listen to archival stories, pitch a story, and participate in (or listen to) open-mic “StorySLAMs.”

The Moth is also marking its twenty-fifth anniversary with the debut of an interactive card game that will spice up your next dinner party, and earlier this year, it released a New York Times–bestselling book, How to Tell a Story, that compiles tricks of the trade and, in almost therapeutic fashion, prompts readers to process the events of their life through the lens of storytelling.

Burns talked us through a few highlights of that book that are sure to help you slay at your next wedding toast, job interview, or porch gabfest.

1. Reclaim your mistakes.

“I feel strongly that our missteps are what make us interesting, and our foibles are what connect us to each other,” Burns says. It’s cool to be the hero in your story, but even better if you started out feeling like a zero. 

As you comb through your memories for storytelling fodder, lean into the uncomfortable and the outright embarrassing. Burns shares the advice of Moth all-star Mike Birbiglia: “He always says that if thinking about something makes you want to die and just totally cringe, that’s what you should mine,” she says.

2. Give them something to root for.

Every story needs stakes, to deploy a key Moth vocabulary word. Show your listeners why they should care—“and what we really mean by that is, why do you care?” Burns says. What do you stand to gain or lose from the events? Let’s say you bought a trunkload of fireworks and have no idea how to use them. That story gets much more interesting if, say, you’re also a closet safety nut trying to impress your stepsons.

photo: Liz Linder
A storyteller on stage for a StorySLAM.

3. Get specific.

Before you tell your story, Burns suggests re-creating the scenes in your mind and tapping into the five senses. What do you see? If you’re eating something, what does it taste like? Sensory details can take your story from blah to brilliant. 

To quote a passage from How to Tell a Story: “The brand of margarine, the song on the radio, the texture of the blanket, the fragment of crime scene tape on the doorframe, the feel of moss beneath your bare feet—details turn your scenes from black-and-white into Technicolor. They make the story vivid, real, and tangible. They are often the juiciest part.”

4. Memorize the first and last lines.

Moth performers are pointedly discouraged from memorizing their stories, with two important exceptions: the first and the final line. A carefully crafted opening is insurance against stage fright, while a planned closing prevents the dreaded anticlimax. “Even the greatest raconteur alive, if left to their own devices, can sometimes tell a gorgeous story and end it with, ‘Well, I guess that’s my story,’ and wander off stage,” Burns says. Know your off-ramp, and nail it. (Consider this a tip for ten-minute monologues and thirty-second voicemails alike.)

5. (Try to) have fun.

Burns says nothing breaks her heart more than when a Moth performer delivers a flawless story “having not enjoyed a minute of it.” Do your homework—memorize your first and last lines, know the bullet points of the rest—and otherwise allow yourself to riff, fumble for words (it’s endearing!), and connect with your audience, knowing that the best stories are never told exactly the same way twice.