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Story Slam Protocols

by Loren Niemi (Member, Producers & Organizers SIG)


Select an appropriate site

Typically it is a bar or restaurant with a back room or side room that is contained or off the main noise/traffic area. Arrangements for use may vary – usually the facility will be happy to let you use the space based on your bringing in additional customers.


Select an appropriate time

Most sites will want slams during the week when patron volume is down, but if you can get and sustain a weekend venue so much the better. Most slams are monthly (i.e. one regularly scheduled night per month per site) and promoted as ongoing or for a fixed period (Nov-June as an example) ending with a “Grand Slam” featuring winners of the previous events.


Make and take to the slam

a)     Five sets of whatever will be used for scoring (cards with markers, white boards, slate with chalk, printed sheets on rings) and can be given to the judges. Larger is better, because at least you need to see it from the stage.

b)     A hat or other container for the names.

c)     Timer.

d)     Calculator and something to keep the scores on.

e)     Misc. markers, paper/cardboard and tape for signage as needed.


Arrive at venue at lest 45 minutes before the start time.

a)     Introduce yourself to the powers that be (including bartenders and waiter/waitresses).

b)     Check physical location re: stage, microphone, lighting, entrance/exits, etc. If unworkable – correct it or figure out how to adjust for problems.

c)     Set up the sign up area. (Make and/or post sign if needed.)

d)     If you are charging admission (and getting the prize money from the door) have the cash box ready at the sign-up area.

e)     If the venue is offering a prize (typically cash or gift certificate) get it or make sure you know when and where it will be available.

f)      Randomly select (recruit) 5 judges from the audience (3 at a minimum) and explain what they have to do. They are scoring slammers on a scale from 0 – 10 with the use of one decimal point encouraged. 0.0 meaning the worst “dreck” you’ve ever heard – 10.0 meaning you’ve gone to Spoken Word Heaven and everything in between is subject to whatever criteria the judge wants to use to arrive at a decision.

g)     Decide if a “”sacrificial slammer” is needed to help judges and audience understand how it works. If so, the host or a non-competing slammer should be that person and explain what they have to do.

h)     Select timekeeper and explain what they have to do. Time the slammer and notify the scorekeeper how much overtime they went if they go overtime. Also notify the host if you’re going to intervene after a 2-3 minute overtime.

i)       Select scorekeeper and explain what they have to do. Write down the scores, throw out the highest and lowest, then add the remaining 3 together to arrive at a cumulative score. This is why you brought the calculator.


At the start of the slam

a)     Introduce yourself,

b)     Welcome folks

c)     Thank the venue sponsor and pitch other Slam events.

d)     Announce the topic!!!

e)     Explain the concept and rules. Personal story (or whatever), no notes, 5 minute time limit, 30 second grace period, point penalty after that, you’ll boot them off stage if they go more than 2 or 3 minutes overtime, and scoring is cumulative with the highest and lowest scores tossed out, the remaining three added together. Highest cumulative score (minus penalties) wins.

f)      Introduce or acknowledge the judges.

g)     Introduce or acknowledge the timer and scorekeeper.

h)     Bring on the “”sacrificial slammer” to demonstrate how it works and calibrate the judges.


During the slam

a)     Select the first name from the hat and bring them to the stage.

b)     Afterwards, thank them, get and announce the judges scoring, comment or otherwise keep a show moving along. Promote, promote, promote and comment on the stories, the slammers, and the audience to fill time as the scorekeeper does his/her duty.

c)     Select the next teller and get them up on stage….

d)     Between contestants, encourage folks to eat, drink and generously tip the servers. At some point it will be clear that one judge has low scores for the slammers – they are your “Russian Judge” and you should encourage the crowd to respond with disdain or approval for their decisions.

e)     Cut off people  (dim lights, cut off mike, walk on stage, etc) if they run too much over 2 or 3 minutes overtime!!! Funny if you can do so, but letting anyone run on and on will kill the slam.

f)      Go through as many names as you have, as you set a limit for or you have time for. If you do not have “enough” names, encourage or recruit participation from the audience to fill your slam’s time slot (usually 1.5 -2 hours).



At the end of the slam

a)     Announce the names for the three highest scores beginning with the 3rd place finisher.

b)     Announce the winner, bring them on stage, and give them the prize if you’ve got one. Remind them that they qualify for participation in the “Grand Slam” whenever it is.

c)     Thank everyone.

d)     Relax for a moment and chat the folks up and encourage them to come again.

e)     Clean up whatever the Hell you’ve brought.


Between slams

a)     Promote, promote, and promote some more - the slams and the venue you are using.

b)     Recruit (and if necessary) train slammers on how to tell a decent 5- minute story.  Announce topics ahead of time and offer free coaching both to build interest and improve quality.

NOTE: A shorter version of this article was published in Storytelling Magazine November/December 2011, published by National Storytelling Network.

Author's Bio

Loren Niemi has spent more than a quarter century as a professional storyteller, creating, collecting, performing and teaching stories to audiences of all ages in urban and rural settings. His work has been called "post-modern", "with the dark beauty of language that is not ashamed of poetry." It is, as storyteller, Kate Lutz said, "a sensibility that owes more to the New Yorker than to the Old Farmer's Almanac."

Loren has also been a Humanities Scholar in Residence for Northern Minnesota, the ringmaster and tour manager of In the Heart of the Beast Puppet & Mask Theatre's Circle of Water Circus, and one third of BAD JAZZ, a performance art trio with Michael Sommers and Kevin Kling, experimenting with new theatrical and storytelling forms.

Loren Niemi

Loren was one of the founders of the Northlands Storytelling Network, a five state storytelling education and advocacy organization, and spent four years as the Chair of the Board of Directors of the National Storytelling Network, the 3,000 plus member advocate and promoter of America's storytelling revival.


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