Fear Friday: That Time I Told A Story In Front of 200 People in a Bar

January 22, 2016


After I bought my tickets for The Moth story slam in Detroit, I half-heartedly went about the business of preparing a story to tell.

In case you’re not an NPR-nerd and don’t know how The Moth works, this is basically what happens:

  • Two-hundred-some people show up at a venue.
  • A very small percentage of those people put their name in a hat to tell a story. The story should be related to the theme of the night.
  • Ten of those people are called up to the stage to tell their stories.
  • There are no scripts allowed. And you can only speak for five minutes.
  • After each story, a panel of judges scores each story. At the end of the night, a winner is announced. The winner receives a nifty paper certificate and an invitation to the GrandSlam, a story slam featuring the year’s winners. And, hopefully, some free drinks.

The theme for the event I was going to was dedication. As a perpetual slacker and chronic quitter, I didn’t have too many personal stories that fit the bill. But I plugged away for at least a good fifteen minutes (talk about dedication!). And then I got distracted by something shiny and, well, Netflix.

As the week went along and the day of the performance drew near and I continued to focus my energy on Netflix more than my story, I reasoned that maybe I shouldn’t volunteer to tell a story after all. I mean, it was my first time at a Moth event. Sure, I listened to the podcast all the time. But that didn’t really give me the feel of the thing, you know? Maybe I should just go and check it out first. Get the lay of the land, you know? And then maybe next time I’d put my name in the hat to be potentially called up to tell a story. Just like how I’m totally going to make eye contact with that cute guy the “next time” I see him.

When I checked the website the day before the show, I noticed the theme had changed to bravery. Phew! I was off the hook! I mean, if ever there was a topic I was guaranteed to not have a single story about this would be it! Now, I could just go, enjoy myself, have a few drinks, listen to a few stories, and not worry about putting my name in any old stupid hat.

I arrived at the venue, a jazz bar in downtown Detroit, a good two hours before the show started only to discover that a majority of the seats with a view of the stage had already been taken. I settled on a bar stool and wondered what I’d do for two hours.

And that’s when I made the mistake of talking to strangers. You guys, this is why your parents tell you to never talk to strangers. Not because you might be kidnapped or something. But because they might convince you to do something crazy like join a cult or volunteer to tell a story in front of two hundred people in a bar.

“People tell stories that aren’t related to the theme all the time,” they said.

“You should put your name in the hat,” they said.

“We put our names in the hat,” they said.

You guys, I am two days away from my fortieth birthday, and I am here to tell you that peer pressure has no age limit. And that’s how I ended up with my name in the hat and the very real feeling that I was going to puke at any minute.

When the moderator pulled the first name out of the hat, that’s when I realized that there was something worse than having your name called. It’s having your name not called, and being forced to sit through a story you can’t even listen to because all you can hear is the voice in your head screaming, “OMIGOD, YOU’RE GOING TO BE NEXT! I KNOW IT! HE’S GOING TO CALL YOUR NAME NEXT! LET’S PUKE!”

When they did finally call my name after the third story, I felt relieved. At least I could stop listening to the voice freaking out in my head and telling me to puke.

But then there was the little matter of my getting up on a stage in front of two hundred people and telling them a story I had only half-prepared about a topic that wasn’t even the topic.

Oh, yes, THAT.

But the craziest thing happened: I did it.

And then something even crazier happened: I won.



Later as I walked back to my hotel, slightly tipsy on free drinks bought for me by the strangers who convinced me to put my name in the hat, I realized that there is something worse than putting your name in the hat.

There is even something worse than waiting to have your name pulled out of the hat.

That something worse is never even putting your name in the hat at all.

And, gosh golly, you guys, I have spent a great deal of my life not putting my name in that hat for fear that I’m going to fail or people are going to laugh at me or I’m going to puke.

But when you do put your name in the hat, good things happen. Or, heck, even if bad things happen, you end up with a good story you can tell the next time your name gets pulled out of a hat, right?

So let’s all put our names in some hats this year, shall we?


When’s the last time you volunteered to do something that completely terrified you?


I've blathered on long enough! Now it's your turn!

  1. On January 22, 2016 at 10:27 am Michelle @ Mishfish13 said:

    Congratulations Sally!! Both on winning AND putting your name in!

    I’ve been interested in going to one of these events for a long time–but nowhere near the point of putting my name in a hat.

    Since I’m in my 20’s and have a weak disposition, I’d say that I’m constantly volunteering for things that I’m terrified of doing. Mostly because I’ve never done them before. But, eventually I have to start doing terrifying things that are actually terrifying to people other than me 🙂
    Michelle @ Mishfish13 recently posted..Hiking up Volcán Maderas

    • On January 24, 2016 at 10:24 am Sally said:

      I’d definitely recommend going to a story slam, and then it will make putting your name in the hat seem a lot less daunting. I only ever listened to the podcast, which is all the SUPER GOOD stories. But at the event people told all kinds of stories — and not-quite-stories (some people kind of just blathered on for 5 minutes). But the audience is super supportive, so I didn’t feel like I had to get up there and do the most amazing job ever. I just had to DO it.

  2. On January 22, 2016 at 11:44 am suki said:

    Congrats on the win! 🙂 Curious to know what story about Bravery did the Unbrave Girl tell! I think I play it pretty safe, so the most terrifying will be if/when I leave my safe and sound career in accounting. 😛
    suki recently posted..See SF : SF Zoo

    • On January 24, 2016 at 10:21 am Sally said:

      I actually ended up telling a story related to the previous theme — dedication. I had a little disclaimer at the beginning and I tried to tie it into the bravery theme, but not so sure I succeeded at that. As for the story, I’m saving it for my book! (And for select public speaking engagements!)

  3. On January 22, 2016 at 1:26 pm Aurora said:

    I LOVE this story! And…. I love that this is right before your 40th! The timing seems perfect, I’d say! And yay you for throwing your name in there (and telling a great story!)
    Aurora recently posted..The end of the road

    • On January 24, 2016 at 10:20 am Sally said:

      Yeah, it did seem appropriate for it to happen right before my 40th… I feel like this year is the year I should just go ahead and do all the things that have freaked me out… after all I’ve lived this long without dying of failure, so I think I’ll survive a few more failures…

  4. On January 22, 2016 at 3:07 pm Daisy said:

    Congratulations! Perfect theme for the unbrave (but actually very brave) girl and a well-deserved win!

    I do a lot of competitive cooking and each competition, I am terrified. Especially if it has anything to do with baking. I’m more of a savory eats kind of girl, so the last time I was in a cookie competition, I made potato chip sandies with chocolate on top. Didn’t win, but was still proud to have done it.

  5. On January 22, 2016 at 5:01 pm MomQueenBee said:

    The last time I did something that terrified me? When I hit “publish” on a blog for the first time. Now it’s been five years, and it’s the most therapeutic thing I’ve ever done.
    MomQueenBee recently posted..So You Hated Uncle Katt? and Other Orts

  6. On January 22, 2016 at 5:18 pm Zandria said:

    I am someone who would have NEVER put her name in that hat. Or if I did, I would have that speech completely written, edited, ultra-analyzed, and memorized. I am such a goddamn chicken. (GO YOU!!!!)

  7. On January 23, 2016 at 5:53 am Claudia said:

    I wish I was there to record this moment!

    I put my name in the hat more often than I should, I think. In fact I am a champion at failing. Who cares? I have plenty of disaster stories to tell!
    Claudia recently posted..An overview of Rome attractions

  8. On January 23, 2016 at 9:51 am Hillary said:

    Congrats on winning Sally! And Happy Birthday! And why has it taken me so long to subscribe to your blog?

  9. On January 23, 2016 at 4:58 pm Jamie said:

    So, please tell us the story that you told them?

    • On January 24, 2016 at 10:15 am Sally said:

      I’d love to, but I’m saving it for the book! Got to give everyone some incentive to buy it… once it’s finally written (and edited and published)!

  10. On January 25, 2016 at 1:53 am Kaori said:

    Yes yes yes! This is so awesome and what I try to tell myself all the time. Good for you!!!

    Also, I had no idea that is how The Moth works. I’ve been listening to the stories on my walk to work lately (the story about the dad/son at the Red Socks game made me cry!) and knew that they were technically “random speakers” but I did not know how random. Wow. That’s amazing. Will I get to hear your story online?
    Kaori recently posted..The January Link Love

    • On January 26, 2016 at 9:22 pm Sally said:

      Omigod. The Moth podcast makes me cry EVERY SINGLE TIME. The other day I was walking home, listening and I totally lost it while listening to the latest one and the woman who was talking about adoption. LOST IT.
      Also, I’m not sure how “random” the ones are that they play online. A lot of the storytellers are Grandslam participants or winners… so they’ve already been kind of “vetted.” I think there are also some Moth mainstage events where storytellers are invited to perform. But I have heard a few on the podcast that are completely random people (and not even winners). Not sure if my story will ever make the radio though.

      • On January 26, 2016 at 10:32 pm Kaori said:

        I understand completely, one of the reasons I started walking to work is that I cry and laugh out loud so much that it got embarrassing on the morning train. Ha. Well, you can be sure I’ll be on the lookout for your story. You never know! 😀
        Kaori recently posted..The January Link Love

  11. On January 26, 2016 at 3:22 am Choi Kum Fook said:

    Congratulations on the winning and the birthday of fortieth! Miss Sally, you deserved for it! The Theme you have talked in bar was bravery or vice versa? Any how I am longing for the book.Still in mind, before you leaved the farm, you talked to me, “Choi, you will be the first person I send the book when I finished writing it!” Of course I will pay for it. Miss Sally, take it easy ! Ha! Ha!

  12. On January 27, 2016 at 7:54 am Jai said:

    congratulations Sally! I wish I was there to hear your story. Was it recorded somewhere so we can see? 😀

  13. On January 30, 2016 at 4:33 pm becky hutner said:

    Omg Sally, as a huge Moth fan I am so very impressed & at the same time not at all surprised you won. What was the story about?

    This putting your name in the hat theme is super relevant to me right now. A few months ago, I packed up and moved to London. While applying for jobs, I came across an ad for pretty much my dream role but after debating whether to apply, I brushed it aside, convinced there was no way I’d get it. A week later, unable to shake the ad from my brain, I did apply. Five minutes after that, I was called for an interview. And then a subsequent interview. After 2 successful interviews, I again convinced myself I wasn’t good enough and voluntarily WITHDREW myself from the hat. At which point the employment gods intervened — the only explanation for why the owner of this company encouraged me to come in for one more meeting. After humming and hawing, I did. And I got the job. 2 weeks in, I still feel like a fraud but that’s a lot better than feeling like an unemployed loser who can’t afford to turn the heating on because I was too chicken to put my name in the damn hat!
    becky hutner recently posted..Canadian in…London??


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