Lying... or Just Good StoryTelling?

Apr 24, 2017

A Church in Staunton was the site of the 7th Annual Virginia Liars Contest‑--yes, a liars’ contest at a church – over the weekend, where weavers of whoppers had eight minutes to spin fantastical fibs for a crowd. The best whopper won $100, a golden shovel and a bag of manure. WMRA's Jessie Knadler was there to take in the tall tales and learn more about the fine art of storytelling.

At the 7th Annual Liars Contest in Staunton over the weekend, Ben Yoder of Stuart’s Draft stood before a crowd of about 70 mostly more mature adults and told the story about once having to clear out the contents of a spooky house for auction.

BEN YODER:  [Auctioneer preamble…] for over 25 years, I have chosen auctions as my primary source of income.

The germ of competitors’ stories – there were seven competitors in all – is supposed to be rooted in truth, but it’s a Liars’ Contest so you’re expected to embellish details. In Yoder’s story, that probably was the bit about encountering a levitating coffin in the basement of the spooky house. The coffin, he said, chased him throughout the house and into the bathroom where Yoder grabbed a bottle off the counter and threw it.

YODER:   Finally when I gathered the nerve I stepped up towards the coffin and then I saw it.  The bottle was a bottle of Nyquil and right on the side of the bottle it said, it stops the coughin.’ [laughter].

Why compete for story telling? Well, when you think about it, telling a good story that holds the audience’s attention for eight full minutes is no easy feat. You’ve got to think about plot, pacing, vocal inflection, suspense, humor. Think about all the times you’ve listened to stories that made your eyes glaze over, while a more gifted teller would have you on the edge of your seat. Good story telling is a craft, an art. It’s eight minutes of theater. Here’s competition organizer Joan Swift.

JOAN SWIFT:  It’s like a book. You have to prepare. And you have to edit.

Swift is a member of the Virginia Storytelling Alliance, which co-sponsored the event. They hold storytelling events throughout the state.

SWIFT: Storytelling has its own little following. It’s been around since the beginning of time. A fairy tale, for instance, I mean, why have fairy tales been told all these years?

It’s because, she says, they have strong story lines.

Leisa Thompson of Salem told a tale about encountering shotgun carrying hooligans in the mountains.

LEISA THOMPSON:  Uh oh. Somebody said something that somebody didn’t like.  They’re going to have a fight out there, I can hear it a brewin.’

Thompson says she didn’t start storytelling until the age of 50.

THOMPSON: And I pull from reality of my life and I always find at the end of my thoughts there is always a twist in the learning of the lesson in which I was speaking.

Charlie Statzer, an engineer from Floyd County, spent two months writing and refining his tall tale about a poor boy who became the first millionaire of Franklin County. 

CHARLIE STATZER:  Now when Snuffy graduated from the 6th grade, he was 18 years old.

To get into character Statzer wore bib overalls and laid on a thick accent.

STATZER:  Plus, taking the teeth out helps a lot, too.

Yeah, he removed his false teeth for his performance. Hey, whatever it takes to get into character. 

STATZER:  To me, I felt a relationship with the audience and things just started flowing. That’s the difference between a good speaker and somebody that’s not a good speaker. If they fear the audience they’re not going to be a good speaker.

Virginia Storytelling Alliance President Gayle Turner was one of four judges. After all seven stories had concluded, they convened to another room to evaluate the tales by audience engagement, structure, wit and brevity. Turner is really into storytelling.

GAYLE TURNER:  Oh my god, it’s the currency of humanity.

The judges' conclusion: Charlie Statzer and his bib overalls took second place. And first place?  That went to Ben Yoder for his  “stop the coughin’” Nyquil whopper. That lucky liar, he walked away with $100, a golden shovel and a big bag of manure.

YODER:  Being an auctioneer has helped me a lot with relating to audiences…getting feedback from audiences, watching their reaction, then playing off those reactions.

The Virginia Storytelling Alliance plans to have another event sometime in August.