Judging at Story Slams



Being a judge

I’m pretty sure I’ll never volunteer to be a judge at a story slam. I’m happy to leave that part of the game to someone else!

Therefore it’s an act of the imagination to answer the question sometimes put to me: “How do they figure the scores?!”

When I consider that, my extensive (cough, cough) experience with story slams (still having only gone to 4 – my 5th one is coming up later this month) leads me to identify the 2 key elements I observe in judging and assigning scores to stories in story slams:

  • Subjectivity
  • Arbitrariness


Here’s what I know about judges at a story slam:

  • Some number of people (seems to differ at different slams) are selected prior to the start of the slam by some method (Volunteering? Bribery? Shanghaiing? Gilded invitation? – !).
  • There are generally teams of judges (I’ve witnessed there being 3 teams, composed of differing number of people); and the teams customarily choose names for themselves, which can be anything from uninspired to creative to off-the-wall – see *examples below).
  • Guidelines (depending on the particular slam) are given the judges for their scoring process. Though details may differ from slam to slam, constants for judges to consider seem to be:
    • Storyteller keeps to the time limit, or at least doesn’t go beyond the grace period
    • Story’s relevance to the theme
    • Was it actually a story (as opposed to stand-up comedy, a recitation, a loose sequence of anecdotes, etc.)?
    • Was it engaging?

stopwatchTime limit is the only measurable element here. I would argue that determining whether it was a story vs. non-story is also relatively straightforward, at least most of the time. The other elements – relevance to theme and engaging-ness – can be quite subjective, especially if you must compare “degrees” of this between the stories told.

And then you pick a number between 1 and 10 and assign it to the story.

So…there’s the arbitrariness.

Being judged

Of course the judges are judging, and the storytellers are…being judged…

It could feel harsh…being judged…couldn’t it…?

I would think it best if each teller can see it as a game, and not get overly competitive or emotionally invested in the outcome or the subjectively-processed and arbitrarily-assigned numbers for scores…


I have witnessed storytellers at slams choose to offer very personal, emotionally-vulnerable stories…only to be, of course, “judged” (it is the nature and process of the story slam event, after all) and given lower scores than a more frivolous yet more-entertaining (and perhaps more skillfully-told, perhaps not) story. It’s kind of tough to take. They shared really deep experiences…. It happened to a friend of mine…and it makes me think twice about how personal a story I might choose to tell in future slams…!

The Point of the Judging?

I like the way Robin Bady put it in a comment-reply on her blog (under her F posting for “Finally!” in which she reports on her first Moth experience [fun for me to read, having just posted yesterday about mine –“I Wuz Robbed!”]). Robin writes:

“The judging is not really a big deal. Just a way to get people to cheer and to support the tellers. Sometimes the ‘best’ one wins…(That) is really not the point of it, though it did raise the stakes.” (And then she added: “But hey, every festival, every show, every whatever is kinda a judgment, yes?” – which is a different topic for another time perhaps!)

More food for thought, right?

Thanks for reading – Pam

 *Examples of Team-of-Judges names I’ve witnessed:
  • Deep Layers
  • The Boy Who Lived
  • Snitches Get Stitches
  • Blue Makes Perfect
  • Bumbledums

I’ve no earthly idea of the custom or culture or why or wherefore of how such names are come up with and chosen, but there you are.


Stopwatch image courtesy of digitalart at FreeDigitalPhotos.net