Business can be...well, serious business. Add to that the myriad of other concerns people have--for example, the current political climate that's making nearly a third of workers less productive--and you can understand why effective teamwork and branding requires cutting through some tension. Comedian, writer and actor Kevin Allison, whose work has appeared on Reno911!, The State, Blue Man Group and Flight of the Conchords, is teaching companies how to do just that with great storytelling.
Creator of the popular Risk! podcast, Allison is now an instructor with Udemy, an online learning platform geared for professional adults. He's also the founder of The Story Studio in New York. Through both companies, he coaches individuals on how to tell their personal or corporate stories effectively. Google, Citibank and Pfizer are just some of the heavy hitters that have used his training.
Two keys to an unforgettable message
The first essential to outstanding storytelling, according to Allison, is a controlling idea. This is the moral or take-away. It should ground you through everything you say, and when you're done, your audience shouldn't have any doubt what this main point was. Great presentations from gurus like Tony Robbins all are built on a single premise in this same fashion, but the principle can apply just as easily to talking about your golf game at the water cooler.
Once you have your central moral, show what you want people to remember. "Instead of spending the whole story explaining concepts," Allison advises, "show us things happening. The look in someone's eyes, the way her voice cracked when she responded, the feeling you had in your guts when you got the good news [...]."
Leaving out humor is no laughing matter
Allison's essentials aren't new advice. But many people who understand them still miss the mark.
"If you're a bad storyteller," Allison asserts, "you're not going to grab people's attention, engage their emotions and prove your points in a memorable way. [...] If you can get your message across in a way that feels human and imbued with feeling people will want to work with you."
The key to doing that? Humor.
Appropriate humor in a story is powerful because it
- disarms your listener so they can relax into and remember the experience.
- makes you seem more human, honest and approachable, and therefore, more trustworthy.
- conveys both competence and confidence.
- facilitates the release of serotonin and other endorphins, helping your listener feel happy and less stressed.
In short, it's humor that provides the pathway to a truly empathetic connection that doesn't feel forced.
Using humor the right way
Because it's the empathetic connection you're after, Allison says to consider issues you feel your co-workers will relate to. "An old idea among comedians," he says, "is that people like making observations about things they find scary, weird, stupid or hard. For example, 'You know what's hard to deal with is when there's donuts in the break room. It's like they're whispering, 'Well, somebody's got to eat us!'"
And don't worry if you're not an encyclopedia of jokes. There are plenty of other ways to incorporate something funny into the story you want to tell. For example, you could
- exaggerate characters or specific elements (e.g., a sandwich the size of New Jersey)
- add or repeat words or phrases (e.g., the biggest signs, and the biggest guest list, and the biggest buffet table you've ever seen)
- modify your vocal tone
- execute specific facial expressions, movements or gestures
And of course, you sometimes can combine these tactics, too. Modifying your tone and taking a specific expression can help you "become" the character you're trying to portray in the story, for instance.
Your choice of how to be funny will depend a lot on your audience and the culture within your company. Whatever route you opt for, Allison says humor needs to be genuinely lighthearted. "If a joke comes across as being a serious complaint or a power play of some sort (like taking someone down a peg), you might be making yourself the bad apple on the team. Also, if a joke shines too much light on issues people tend to be more private about (sex lives, religious faith, political ideology), it might be better for sharing among the friends you don't share your work life with. Some startups are more intimate than bigger corporate businesses, though."
As a final tip, hone in on that "genuine" part of Allison's advice. Authenticity in humor and storytelling means that you develop your own style--the way you deliver your message will be distinguishable from others, even if you rely on some of the basic strategies outlined above. Experiment. Play around and see what works and feels good. The stage (or boardroom) is all yours.