Thank you :)

Thanks to everyone who came out to the show last Thursday.  We had a great turnout on both sides of the microphone. 

Lance started us off with a story about being asked to take an old man on his final ride in his ’58 Oldsmobile convertible. I hope one day to have a classic car worth taking a final drive in. Taking my final roll through town in a 2010 Prius just wouldn’t be the same.

Megan, our first first-timer of the night, told us about a 10-day motorcycle trip through the Himalayas with her boyfriend. Can love spring forth from the back seat of a motorcycle? Is hypothermia romantic? Yes it can, and yes it is. Although, if you’re driving to the top of the world on a motorcycle, you should probably bring more than a windbreaker.

Beverly, our second first-timer, told a hilarious story about commandeering a Pan-Am flight when the ground delays began to last days. This is what happens when a third-grade teacher from Albany takes matters into her own hands. At least that’s the lesson the New York State Attorney General learned. It runs out that Beverly was Yelp before Yelp was Yelp. It’s amazing what a bunch of people can do armed with stamps and postcards. 

Marte shared a travel story where she ended up working in a bong factory. Ah, the happy-go-lucky days of the 70’s when you could pull over on the side of the road and find a bong factory to work in while you fixed your carpeted Chevy van. One interesting thing we learned from Marte was that if you’re going to pick up a hitchhiker, make sure you pick up one who’s carrying a musical instrument. I’ve never been trapped in a car with a folk singer so I can’t personally vouch for this approach. 

Colleen took us on our second hitchhiking story of the night when she told us about getting picked up by an opera singer in Europe. I don’t know what your best hitchhiking experience is but I bet it doesn’t include being serenaded with an aria from Madame Butterfly. I think in America the best you can hope for is to only have to listen to two hours of Kid Rock. Unless you’re picked up by a folk singer and then it would be 200 verses of This Land Is Your Land.

Behnaz told a recent story about the nervousness she felt helping an old man who fell down on the sidewalk in front of her. In any other year, she wouldn’t have hesitated. But in the early days of Covid what do you do? I think a lot of us are relieved that we haven’t had to choose between social distancing and helping a stranger in need. What we think we’d do and what we actually do can be very different things. I’m glad everything worked out for both Behaz and the old man.

Lisa, our third first-timer, shared another story about meeting strangers. It turns out she and her husband have very different reactions to panhandling. Now I’m wondering if this should be part of my online dating profile. Do you give people your change or do you suddenly start walking faster and avoid eye contact? Lisa’s story reminded me of all the times my son has given money to strangers and the talks we’ve had afterward. It’s amazing how a story about a moment on a sidewalk with a stranger can make you question so many things you believe in.

Bruce told us about the moment his therapist said she couldn’t keep seeing him. As hard as that moment was, it somehow freed him to acknowledge how far he had come and how much stronger he was than he thought. Sometimes we forget the mountains we’ve climbed and the past we’ve overcome. As hard as it is to lose a therapist, it sounds like Bruce got what he needed. Yay for good therapists!

Michael, our final first-timer, shared the story of how much soccer has been a part of his life and what it meant to have to give it up. As a young man, Michael came close to making it to the big leagues until injuries took their toll. Years ago, when he was in Brazil practicing with their national team he drove by the favelas every day and witnessed poverty he had never seen back home in the states. Years later, when he had to accept that his soccer dream was over, he turned his life over to public service. He’s now responsible for helping Washington State develop clean energy solutions. If you see an electric car charger in a parking lot somewhere, there’s a good chance one of Michael’s programs is responsible for that. 

Harjas, our last teller, came to us all the way from India. It was Friday morning there so that means he’s the first person to tell a story from the future. Harjas reminded us that it doesn’t matter how cutting edge your company is if it’s also a toxic workplace. I wish they would teach that in business schools. There are so many times in my life that I’ve wanted to ask a manager, “What’s your Yelp rating as a human being? Is your soul intact or did you sell it at the crossroads for a stake in this company?” Luckily, I work for a great place now and everyone I see on a daily basis gets 5 stars from me. I’m glad Harjas can say the same now.

I did manage to get a good recording so let me know if you told a story and want a copy. I only give audio to the folks to shared stories and it’s only of the story they told. Most of the stories we hear at FGS are pretty personal and that’s why I only share the audio with the person who told the story. 

Our next show is March 18. The theme is “Gut Check – Stories of facing up to something.” I’ll get the official invite out as soon as I can.

Thanks again to everyone who showed up last week. Not only was it a great show, but I’m loving getting to see and talk to everyone before and afterward. The after-show talks are a great way to thank the tellers and learn more about them. 

See you all next week!


YouTube finally gets me

Sometimes YouTube really comes through for me. Most of the time the algorithm just sends me U2 concerts, Unabomber documentaries, and pandas sliding down hills. I love all those things but I’m pretty sure there’s more great stuff out there that I could be looking at. Yesterday, the math gods blessed me with an interview of Stephen Tobolowsky that reminded me of how much I miss him. 

From 2009-2017 (recently restarted in 2020) the actor Stephen Tobolowsky told hour-long stories on the podcast The Tobolowsky Files. They were beautifully crafted, layered stories from his life that often took place on movie sets but were never about making movies. He was the first storyteller who really made my jaw drop. To this day, I honestly don’t know how he managed to write and tell so many amazing stories. 

When his podcast ended in 2017, I moved on to other podcasts and other tellers, almost completely forgetting about him. This week, wonderful, glorious YouTube popped up with an interview Stephen did where he worked in a story I’d never heard before. Once again, he blew me away. It’s not easy to tell a story as casually and conversationally as Tobolowsky does. You’d swear he’d never told it before and was remembering each scene just before he says it.

Naturally, I started looking for one of his stories that I could send out to everyone at FGS for inspiration. When I discovered the one called, “The Moth and the Window” I decided to not just share it but to also break it down scene by scene, word by word, to show how it works. It’s a short, simple story that uses a lot of standard elements of personal storytelling throughout. 

The Moth and the Window

:20 Here he quickly sets up the background of the story and his reason for being where he is. He moved to LA in 1976 to become an actor. Notice he doesn’t go into why he decided to become an actor or even where he moved from. None of that is necessary to the story. He could add those things in if he wanted to tell a 10-20 minute story but by leaving them out he tightens the story so the audience doesn’t have to keep track of more than they have to.

:25 – 1:30 Here he sets up the premise of the story. All of it is believable. He was so desperate for work he goes to an audition he has to pay to get into. There he meets other starving actors. One of those actors gives him tickets to a Lakers Basketball game. There were undoubtedly other things that happened in this time period but the only thing necessary to the story is that he met a guy who used to play with the Lakers’ coach and that’s why he has free tickets.

Listen to Stephen’s voice. He conveys how excited he is for these tickets just by using his voice. This also lets us know how important it is for him to see this game. It’s a rare opportunity for someone with no money to get great seats to watch the Lakers in their prime. All of this is very believable. The audience can feel his excitement. Now we have an idea of what’s at stake. We’re less than 90 seconds in and we already know that something important is going to happen around this game.

1:38 Stephen describes the car he’s driving using the classic list of three things. Three is a magic number in comedy, storytelling, writing, etc. I don’t know why this is but it’s a great number to use in a list or when you’re describing something. It just feels natural. Not too few, not too many. I’m sure he could have gone on and told us 15 things that were wrong with his car but three was enough for us to get the idea. This is also a good example of another rule in storytelling. Give the audience just enough information to get the idea. Give them too little and they won’t have enough information to understand the rest of the story. Give them too much and they’ll have a hard time keeping track of everything. Another problem of giving the audience too much information is that you might trigger a memory or idea in people that take them out of the story. Don’t send the audience off on tangents. Give them just enough information and then move on.

2:11 Here he does something that many new storytellers struggle with. He says, “I got into a line of cars that was going into the reserve parking area.” Many new tellers would have said, “I got into a line of cars that I thought was going into the reserve parking area.” By adding “I thought” you tell the audience that at some point later in the story you will find out that it wasn’t a line of cars going into the reserve parking area. You spoil the surprise that comes up later. With very few exceptions, it’s important to stay in the moment you were in when the story originally happened. By saying, “I thought” you step out of the past and into the present to give the audience information they shouldn’t have yet. 

2:20  Great transitional line here. “And that’s when I discovered that I was not alone.” It’s a simple, direct line that lets the audience know that this is an important moment. He also pauses after he says it to give the audience a chance to fully appreciate it. 

2:21  Excellent use of what’s called an act out. He uses his right hand to imitate the spastic flight path of a moth. Not only does this break up the relatively static presence he’s had so far on stage, it also reminds the audience of how hard it is to catch a moth. By using this simple hand gesture, he makes the audience understand how hard it’s going to be to deal with this moth. Using gestures and vocal inflections is a great way to make the audience understand something without having to use words. Sometimes a small gesture or a slight change in your voice can be more effective than any words you might use.

He also doesn’t overdo the act out. He could easily have shown the moth fluttering all around the car and pretended to bat it away but that would have been distracting. All he needs to do is remind the audience that moths are hard to catch. In the second act out he does something brilliant. He taps his forehead to let us know how frustrating this moth is. Look at how simple and direct this gesture is. He’s conveying the emotion of annoyance without any wasted movement. It’s very easy to be distracting when doing an act out so keep them simple. Never do more than you need to in order to convey the experience.

2:45 Now his act outs become a little bigger to show us he’s getting more and more frustrated. The movements are still controlled, though. They look wild but they aren’t so wild that they’re distracting. He also uses his voice to convey frustration without being  so loud that the audience pulls back. There’s a way you can imply yelling during a story without blowing people’s eardrums out. I can’t describe it here but I’m happy to demonstrate some time.

2:55 “Moth keeps hitting the window where it was exposed.”  Here he’s reinforcing the action of the moth to really drill it into the audience’s mind how dumb this insect is. He’s doing this because in the end, we discover this is what the story is really about. He doesn’t tell us that here though. He just emphasizes the idea so it has greater meaning when he finally references it in the end.

3:05  Here he stops talking about the moth in order to ramp up the tension for the rest of the story. “Now they were announcing the players.”  He starts to wonder why the line isn’t moving. He gives us logical reasons for why the line might not be moving. Someone doesn’t have the correct change, the parking lot might be full. These are things anyone would wonder and helps keep the audience from wondering why something is or isn’t happening in the story. You never want the audience to wonder why you didn’t do something they would have done in the same situation. We’ve all wondered why a line isn’t moving so it makes sense that Stephen is giving us understandable reasons for it that keep the audience from wondering if something else going on. 

3:40 “Now the game has started and I was completely freaking out.” This is the one line in the story I would have said differently. I would have said, “…and I am freaking out.” Using present tense keeps the audience in the moment in which the story is actually happening. If you’re in the moment, the audience will be too. It’s not always possible to use the present tense but use it when you can to keep the audience in the moment.

“I got out of the car and discovered to my horror, I was not on the road to reserve parking. There was no gate ahead of me. There was no one taking money. I had pulled in behind a line of parked cars.”

Here he lets the audience laugh before he continues. Many tellers don’t give the audience time to laugh before they start the next line. When you have a good line, let the audience laugh at it. They want to laugh so let them. It also gives the teller and the story a chance to breathe. It breaks up the energy a bit and gives you a chance to shift the emotion or the direction of the story if you need to. 

4:05 A quick and perfect summary. “I saw that the moth and I were the same.” Beautiful. Ten short words that sum up the entire story. The sentence is neither too short nor too long. It also has a rhythm to it that the audience responds to. It sounds like a parable. People remember simple sentences like this. When writing for the stage, it’s important to keep your sentences simple and memorable. You can get away with long, multiple clause sentences when you’re writing to be read because the reader can take all the time they want to get through it. When you’re writing to be heard you have to craft your sentences so the audience gets them on the first try. 

4:15  Here Stephen offers us a comparison that’s full of images both in words and body language. “He couldn’t see the open window, I didn’t see I was in a line of parked cars.” It’s a beautiful comparison that puts two images in the audience’s mind that are quickly and easily understood. He also uses his body to reinforce the two sides of the situation. He uses his right hand to describe the moth and his left hand to describe himself. This is another example of an act out being more powerful than words.

4:40 “Sometimes a wall is not a wall. From a different perspective, it can be a bridge.” Another simple sentence that clearly summarizes the story and is something the audience will remember long after they’ve forgotten the rest of the story. He says one more sentence after this but he could have ended here. Both sentences are short and memorable and a great way to end the story.

So that’s my breakdown of this story. There’s more to be said and other ways to interpret each scene and sentence. This is just my perspective. I hope it was helpful. Breaking down stories at this level is always interesting to me. Sometimes it gives me good examples to share with others and sometimes I see something new and incorporate it into my own stories. 

I hope to see you all on the 18th. Email me if you have a story you’d like to tell.

Below is the interview YouTube sent me that got me all excited about Stephen Tobolowsky again 🙂

The radio host asks him about the time Stevie Ray Vaughan played on a song Stephen recorded with his high school band. This turned out to be the first studio recording of SRV’s career. Stevie was 14 at the time and completely unknown outside of the town they all grew up in. 

Click below if you’d like to check out The Tobolowsky Files podcast


FGS: The best bad thing that turned out good – Stories of surprising turnarounds

One of the things you end up doing a lot of as a storyteller is going back over your life to look for more stories. For some reason, the memories I always seem to focus on are breakups, failures, and death in that order. Breakups and failures being infinitely more painful than death. I only throw death in there to lighten things up.

I used to dredge up the same memories before I got into storytelling but it was only to reinforce my belief that misery was the mortar that held my life together. But once I started looking at those experiences as the basis for stories, I began to realize how often something good came out of those terrible times. It wasn’t until I started looking at certain moments as starting points instead of ending points that I was able to see all the good places I had been led to. Breakups led to new love. Failures led to new perspectives. Death often led to freedom.

I would love to hear some stories about how tragedies and disasters in your life led to something good. The tragedies don’t have to be big. They can be a small as a wrong turn that led to the place you should have been heading to all along. Or they can be as big as falling in love with the dentist who gave you a root canal. I don’t recommend that as a way to find a mate but it could be the only dating site covered by insurance.

We did a show on this theme five years ago and I think it’s time we brought it back. The show is February 18th at 7 pm PST on Zoom.

Remember to practice out loud on as many people as possible, and time yourself when you’re doing it. All stories have to be under 8 minutes. Stories also have to be clean in both language and content. The rest of the rules and guidelines are below:

Workshops are a great way to get feedback on a story you’re working on. Here are two I highly recommend:

Stay Awesome Storytelling Virtual Workshop

Seattle, WA
126 Members

Hi! Come join me Bill Bernat to workshop a 5-7 minute story. It’s the perfect way to prep a story for Fresh Ground Stories or another storytelling show. This is usually a smal…

Check out this Meetup Group →

FGS – Storytelling Workshop

Seattle, WA
653 Storytellers

This workshop helps you become a better storyteller and to prepare to tell stories at events like Fresh Ground Stories or The Moth.The workshop is free.A diverse group of pe…

Next Meetup

February ONLINE Storytelling Workshop

Sunday, Feb 7, 2021, 1:00 PM
14 Attending

Check out this Meetup Group →

Both are free and run by experienced tellers who have told many times at FGS. I’m also available to help on stories. Send me an email and we can set up a call.

If you want to tell a story at the show, email me at as soon as possible so I can get you on the list.

I send out the Zoom registration link to everyone in the Meetup group the Monday before each show. You must register for the show in order to attend. After you register, Zoom will send you a link to the actual show. Each link is unique to the person who registered so you won’t be able to share it with anyone. 

Feel free to RSVP on Meetup if you want the automatic reminders, but I’ll be sending the Zoom link to everyone in the group regardless of your RSVP.

We only have 100 spots in each show (98 actually since me and my assistant each take one spot) so the first 98 people to register for the show will be the only ones who can attend. 

Hope to see a bunch of you on the 18th!


Thank you!

Thank you everyone who came out and supported our tellers Thursday. We had folks from California and eastern Canada join us. I have to admit that I was very skeptical of bringing FGS to Zoom. I didn’t think we’d be able to connect over such a flat, glitchy, accidentally-mutey thing. But it turns out that we can not only have great shows on Zoom, we get to hear stories from all over the world. 

Tracey kicked off the show with a story about going from being an English major to working on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange in the mid-80s. Did she have the cold heart and killer instinct that traders need to succeed in the world of bears and bulls? Of course not. It turns out that if you cry when your stock goes down your boss gives you a stern talking to in the women’s restroom.

Danielle called in all the way from three time zones away in Canada to tell a story about a friend she made in grade school who always had her back. Where do these wise nine-year-olds come from? Do they keep that kindness and grace when they become adults? I hope so. 

Simar, in his first story with us, talked about a trip to Europe that involved a heartless German ATM, trying to bribe a bank teller with a demi-baguette with pumpkin seeds, and being mistaken for an international PayPal scammer. For a storyteller, you really can’t ask for a better vacation.

Sooz, our other first-timer that night, told us what it was like being married to a wonderful man who happened to live and work in a junkyard. Personally, I can’t think of a more magical place to grow up than a junkyard but I’m willing to accept that I might be in the minority. I bet Sooz has a lot more stories about the years she spent helping to run that business. I hope she comes back and shares them with us.

If you’d like to know more about Sooz and how she’s helping small businesses in Seattle you can read this article from the Seattle Times:

Cara, who was telling with us for the second time told a story about spending Christmas dinner with her dad and his sixth wife who was taking some time for herself at a sober living facility. Halfway through her story, I realized how little drama I have in my family life these days. I kinda miss it. Not sixth-wife-Christmas-dinner-in-rehab miss it but in my own slightly less madcap way I do miss it. Thank you Cara for sharing a little family history with us. I hope you told your sister that story and that she enjoyed it as much as we did.

Yousaf’s story about all the upside-down feelings he had over turning 30 made me remember all the times I hid my age from people after I turned 50. Is there any age that we’re excited about turning besides 18 or 21? Thank you for that sweet, vulnerable story about the crazy standards we set for ourselves. I didn’t feel like I was worth anything until just a few years ago. I wish my 30-year-old self could have felt better about himself.

Behnaz returned to us after a few months off to talk about the time she and her parents were almost crushed by a giant throng of shoppers in a mall in Dubai. Can you imagine dying under a pile of shopping bags full of Gucci loafers and Vera Wang totes? Killed while shopping is right up there with falling in the tub or choking on a sandwich. There’s no good way to spin that for the eulogy. What we learned from Behnaz’s story, though, was that almost dying can lead to profound changes in how you think about life. That’s one of the things I love about storytelling. It makes us reevaluate little moments from our lives and get a bigger perspective on them.

Our next show is February 18th. The theme is one we haven’t done in almost exactly five years. “The best bad thing that turned out good.” Look for the invite sometime this week.

Thanks again to not only the tellers but everyone who came out to support them. This is hard stuff. Speaking to a room full of strangers is terrifying for most people. To do it while being honest and vulnerable about a time in your life when you were struggling is a thousand times harder. Thank you for always showing kindness and patience to the people who are willing to walk up the microphone and do that.

See you next month 🙂


A beautiful adventure story from one of our tellers

This is a great story from one of our tellers, Paul Barach. It was recently featured on the outdoors podcast, Out There. The producers did an amazing job adding a soundscape to Paul’s words.

Paul wrote a book about an earlier adventure which you can find here. I always love reading about where our tellers have been in the world. I’m happy that some of them have written books about those adventures.