Hand Transplants, A Backwards Heart, Amputation, Al Gore, Barbie Dream House, Boy Soldiers, Pick-up Lines, Peaches and ‘Snow White and the Screaming Meemies’. These are just some of the titles of talks posted on The Moth podcast – a platform dedicated to the art and craft of storytelling – with 25 million people tuning in every year.
Whether it’s a student who fell in love at 11pm mass, a guy who went on a date to Comic-Con or a woman who went to a pro-choice rally with her stepfather, the storytellers themselves aren’t necessarily professional speakers, neither are they experts in a particular field or an authority on a certain subject.
Just think of The Moth as the rebellious little sister of TED Talks, who gathers her friends around the back of the bike shed and whispers about taboo subjects. On Moth podcasts, you come across sentences such as, “I woke up one morning and I wasn’t wearing any of my clothes” or “Next to him were two homicide detectives”.
What started as an open-mic night in New York eight years ago has grown into an international, multi-media platform, focused around a radio hour, podcast and app where thousands of Moth talks can be downloaded for free.
The only rules are a Moth talk has to focus on a personal life experience, should be told in five minutes or less and the storyteller can’t read from a script.
“There is no vetoing here”, says Maggie Cino, senior producer at The Moth. “It’s just you and your story, available to the world in all its glory.”
As they explain, “It is a celebration of both the raconteur, who breathes fire into true tales of ordinary life, and the storytelling novice, who has lived through something extraordinary and yearns to share it.”
The Moth is benefitting from the podcast revival (podcast listeners grew by 25 per cent in the US last year and no-one is forgetting Serial) and our growing fascination with all things audible. Audiobook powerhouse Audible, which has more than 170,000 titles on its catalogue and was sold to Amazon for a reported US$300 million, is now commissioning and producing original audio works and last year, shares of UK-based audio sharing platform AudioBoom, described as “YouTube for the spoken word”, rose 800 per cent. Meanwhile, Apple paid a rumoured US$30 million to buy the Google-backed audio app Swell, which delivers podcasts to users based on an algorithm.
“The spoken word is such a strong way to connect directly,” says Maggie of our move towards podcasts. She says people have the ability to tell their story verbally, even if they failed English at school.
“With the spoken story, you get the person’s voice and presence and how powerfully it matters to them. As a medium, it’s like a direct line to their emotions.”
At its core, The Moth is a storytelling platform for everyday people who don’t have a profile, to share unique personal experiences. These can range from huge life milestones (a woman attempts to cross the Arctic solo) to everyday occurrences (a man loses a treasured pair of pants).
“Our goal is to help people find that memory,” says Maggie. “The memory that is so true and so heartfelt, that it really burns them to speak. We want to create a place where it feels scary but also safe to share it.”
The producer and director was working in the conventional theatre world when she first came across The Moth.
“I went to watch an open-mic night and fell in love. It was a moment of synchronicity when they offered me a job.”
Since then, she has helped expand The Moth brand. The live shows now include ‘StorySLAM’ nights – the non-profit’s signature open-mic storytelling competitions (now ongoing in Sydney and Melbourne as well) – where anyone can come up and tell a story. A theme is accounted in advance and attendees are asked to prepare a five-minute story about the subject (like ‘Prepare a five-minute story about white gowns or cold feet’ in Seattle recently or ‘Tell us about a time your personal velocity was at its peak or careering into oncoming traffic’ in Miami).
There are also more structured mainstage events, where speakers are handpicked in advance and receive coaching from Maggie but still, rawness is encouraged.
“Coaching is about listening and encouraging people to select material that is both compelling and also personally powerful. If you went through a breakup that afternoon, this maybe isn’t the place to come and talk about it yet. But it’s the place to tell the story of your breakup that happened two years ago.”
More recently they have launched a corporate program, with storytelling workshops for companies to help employees better communicate with each other.
“The thing about the corporate program is that everyone is at work,” says Maggie. “So, everyone wants to do well and wants to make sure they don’t look like a jerk or maybe their boss is in the room. There are a lot of buttoned-up people. But the program is all about encouraging a company culture where it’s possible to share something intimate, personal and even dangerous. What does that do to your company’s communication?”
It’s a far cry from the old-school belief that employees should leave their personal lives at the office door.
“It’s not possible to be anonymous anymore,” says Maggie. “You are who you are and this is what we’re struggling with as a culture. Your boss can search for you online and if you made a terrible mistake when you were 14, someone will find out about it in five minutes.”
This is why they encourage open and empowering confessionals. If a story is going to be told, wouldn’t you rather it’s told in your own words?
“What’s really powerful is owning who you are and being able to make decisions and [choose] how, when and why you share personal information,” says Maggie. “We teach people how to be authentic but also be aware of their messaging. As our artistic director says, we want people to speak from their scars, not from their wounds.”
It all began with American author George Dawes Green, who started The Moth’s open-mic nights in New York because he wanted to recreate the summer evenings he spent in his hometown of Georgia, where he and his friends would gather on a porch and share yarns.
As the story goes, there was a hole in the porch screen that let in moths attracted to the light, and this is how the group got its name. With over 25 million people now downloading The Moth podcast every year, they’ve created a very attractive flame.