Storytelling Unmuted: Hosting a Typically In-Person Event on Zoom

The air is crisp on this day in March as Paige Daniels, a student at Florida Atlantic University, takes her Italian Greyhound, Alfie, for a walk after work. A field by her apartment is usually empty and the perfect place to let Alfie off of his leash for a walk — an active dog’s heaven. Her mind wanders as Alfie chases the local birds, until she hears the splash.

What Daniels quickly realized was Alfie had fallen into a nearby retention pond, and in true South Florida spirit, an alligator spotted its afternoon snack. Daniels jumped into the pond screaming at the alligator as she swam to save her dog.

Once she had Alfie she threw him over the edge of the pond and into safety. With the alligator still behind her, she struggled to climb over the edge and save herself. Once she made it, she found her apartment keys were lost in the water.

Photo by Vish K on Unsplash

She turned and saw the alligator who “was floating and looking at me almost like he was saying, ‘I should have got you,’” said Daniels.

This was just one of the stories presented at the Story Central Virtual Storytelling Slam on October 11th. The slam was hosted by Caren Neile and the Boca Raton Public Library. Neile is a storytelling professor at FAU and host of the Public Story Teller show by WLRN. She has participated in storytelling slams for 16 years.

The Story Central Storytelling Slam is typically an in-person event but since March, Neile has hosted 7 slams over Zoom.

The slam consisted of stories 5–7 minutes in length and the winner of the slam was rewarded $50. Judges chose the winner based on three criteria. First, is it a story? Judges critiqued whether each story had a beginning, middle, and end. This criteria also mandates that the story is not written down, rehearsed, and memorized. “ I do not tell my students to write down stories ever, ever, ever,” said Neile. The story must be a personal one, not anyone else’s’.

Photo by Marcos Luiz Photograph on Unsplash

Second, the judges observe how the audience reacted to each story. The third criteria was the judges’ opinions on the stories.

The second criteria presented challenges since this slam was conducted virtually. “I teach how vital body language is, how we get so much information from people’s expressions” said Neile. She explained that the audience would have their cameras on and the judges would be paying attention to how engaged listeners are throughout the different stories.

Zoom presented other challenges for participants. As Neile officially began the storyteller introductions, an attendee unmuted herself and complained about the Zoom background she accidentally added behind her. It was an image of the Golden Gate Bridge and she insisted on asking for help to remove it.

During presentations, audience members frequently, and unknowingly, unmuted their computer microphones which created several disruptions.

Aaron Borders, an FAU student and food delivery driver, had just finished telling the story of when his car was hijacked while he was working. When making deliveries, Borders often left his car running since drop-offs tended to be quick interactions. One particular night, a Friday the 13th, someone took that opportunity to steal his car.

Once Borders finished telling his tale, an unmuted attendee said, “There’s no excuse for stupidity.” Other unintelligible remarks were made until Neile was able to mute the man’s microphone.

To keep the audience engaged between stories, Neile often sang a song based on the prior story and encouraged the audience to unmute and sing along. One Wiccan storyteller, Adele Alexandre, divulged to the audience an important spiritual moment in her life where she had a dream about her son whom she had lost due to a miscarriage. After this story Neile sang, “Ding Dong, the Witch is Dead!”

The first place winner was Bill Gralnick. Gralnick had told a humorous story about his youth; when he took a romantic walk with a girl from summer camp. Earlier in the day he had seen a cow, he thought she had the most beautiful eyes. The walk with the girl had ended with a slap to the face after he compared her brown eyes to those of a cow. Paige Daniels won second place.

The next Story Central Virtual Storytelling Slam will be held Sunday, November 8th. Those who are interested in sharing a story of their own can sign up here.

Gillian is a student journalist at Florida Atlantic University.