Storytelling our way to Deeper Connections with Rachel Saslaw of StoryTell NYC

Once upon a time... I interviewed Rachel Saslaw, founder of StoryTell NYC. Rachel started StoryTell as a way to cultivate more meaningful connections and vulnerability through personal storytelling. She shared insights on how she democratizes storytelling, her personal birthday pie-off, her new family recipe heirloom, and more. 

Read on for highlights from our discussion and watch the full interview on YouTube or listen to the audio podcast.

Building community through storytelling

Rachel discussed how she started StoryTell NYC as a way to foster more meaningful connections in her life. As someone who often found herself stuck in surface-level small talk at social gatherings, she craved a space for more vulnerable sharing. She and her co-founder began hosting these monthly gatherings for people to share personal stories related to a theme, which helps create a sense of openness.

"It's such a meaningful event because it was something that I was lacking in my own life in terms of these intentional relationships, these intentional moments of connecting with people beyond the surface level of kind of reporting backwards in your life. You know, 'how's friends, how's family, how's work, let's get the check.'"

Rachel explained how the intimate event format, with storytellers sitting in a circle on the floor, encourages people to open up beyond the usual pleasantries. She strives to make StoryTell an inclusive experience where anyone can participate in storytelling, not just pre-planned performers.

"What differs it from the Moth or Risk, for example, is that we don't have any predetermined keynote speakers or having one hero storyteller... anyone in the audience can participate.

We really try to democratize storytelling. The stories of somebody that is public speaking for the first time in their entire life or sharing a story that they've never told out loud... we all get so much value out of that.

And there's this deeper level of vulnerability that comes out in these moments which you can't capture if you're really thinking about the structure of a story and the arc and the apex. "

Rachel believes there is value in embracing beginner storytellers just as much as polished ones. Through practices like passing around slips of paper for audience members to sign up on the spot, she aims to create a welcoming space for the storytellers to emerge.

Turning her birthday into an annual pie competition

Every year for her birthday, Rachel hosts a pie competition where friends and family bake pies and share them together:

"Everyone comes with a baked pie to a venue. There are three categories that you could submit into. Best sweet, best savory, and most unique. And people go to great lengths to advertise their pie. So some people dress up like their pie. Some people make up really cool names. Some people rap about their pie. It's pretty amazing. So all the pies are on display and then one by one the pies are introduced and everyone gets a bite of each of them and as a room we're all kind of judges of each other's pies."

She described how everyone dresses up according to their pie theme, tries each other's creations, and votes on favorites. Rachel inherited this tradition from a friend, showing how food rituals can be passed not just down through the generations, but laterally between friends:

"My friend's older sister used to host a pie-off with her friends, and I was like, "Wow, this is incredible." It's such an intentional way of gathering, such like a meaningful anchor to what would otherwise just be a house party. And they stopped doing it because they all kind of moved across the country and fled away from their hometowns.

And I was like, this seems like something I want to pick up the torch from. So dusted the torch off the floor and started hosting it with my friends."

Making this an annual birthday tradition has an extra benefit as well:

"It's now my birthday party because it's nice to just have something consistent and not have to worry about what I'm doing for my birthday every year."

She also reminisced about her dad compiling a recipe book for her birthday with all her favorite dishes he cooks, along with pictures of her enjoying the food growing up. Though Rachel doesn't come from a long lineage of family recipes, she can still carry on food traditions with her father by learning to make the meals he perfected for her childhood.

What a treasured heirloom this recipe book can become with time!

Rachel reflected on how traditions like Shabbat dinners demonstrate the value of taking a tech break and spending quality time with loved ones. Preparing and enjoying food with others creates meaningful shared experiences and a sense of community.

Balancing virtual and in-person gatherings

Rachel weighed the trade-offs of virtual versus in-person events. While virtual gatherings lower barriers to attendance since people can join from anywhere, they lack the serendipity and casual socializing that happen before, after, and on the sidelines of in-person events. She talked about creative ways to try to foster connection in digital spaces, like virtual office buildings where avatars can randomly mingle.

However, Rachel remains committed to keeping StoryTell small, intimate, and in-person, while exploring ways to enhance that experience. She believes virtual events can achieve similar goals to live ones using different tactics, but they cannot perfectly replace them. She explained how scaling up would make StoryTell feel more like a performance, undermining the vulnerable sharing.

"Scaling intimacy is really hard. And if I was just trying to max out however many people would come, I'm sure we could get 100 people in a room, but I like to keep it at 30."

Rachel continues to nurture StoryTell as a source of belonging in her life while making small optimizations. By embracing imperfection and the needs of both storytellers and listeners, she facilitates human connection through the power of personal storytelling.

Watch the full video interview here:

Or listen to the audio here:


Folks gather for StoryTell NYC.