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Why Humor Matters in the Breakroom and the Boardroom

Think about the last time you listened to someone tell a story...would the story have been better received if it was told by someone else?

Not everyone is a natural storyteller, but enterprises investing in their employees’ communication skills are better off for it. The stories brands tell about themselves and the stories employees tell about their employers can help create a positive narrative used to close deals and improve loyalty. Story-telling is so critical that companies like American Express, HBO and Chanel use outside sources such as Story Studio to help refine their stories; we were able to catch up with the company’s founder, Kevin Allison.

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connected with Allison, also an Udemy instructor and professional writer and actor – who has appeared on Reno911, Flight of the Conchords and the Blue Man Group – to get his thoughts on the effects of good story-telling (particularly the use of humor) in the workplace.

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What are a few tips for how co-workers can use humor to better engage with one another?

Consider issues you feel your co-workers could surely relate to. An old idea among comedians 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 left in the break room. It's like they're whispering, 'Well SOMEBODY'S got to eat us!'"

When is it inappropriate to use humor at work?  

You want to try to keep your joking around 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 (e.g., 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.  

What are some of the ways being a bad story-teller can impact performance at work?

If you're a bad storyteller, you're not going to grab people's attention, engage their emotions, and prove your points in a memorable way.

How can being a good story-teller improve performance at work?

Being someone whose perspective people want to hear will get you "in the room where it happens," as the song says. If you can get your message across in a way that feels human and imbued with feeling, people will want to work with you.

What are a few key components of telling a good story?

First and foremost, have a controlling idea for a story. That's the "moral" or "take-away." Be clear and concrete about this point you want your story to illustrate. The second most important thing is, show don't tell. That means that instead of spending the whole story explaining concepts, 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, a thought that ran through your head that you decided not to say out loud, the awkward moment of silence and squirming when the bad news came, etc.

How have businesses benefitted from investing in training their employees to be better storytellers? Communicators overall?

At The Story Studio in New York, we have lots of repeat customers each year. Businesses like Google, Pfizer, Citibank and PwC keep coming back for us to train other teams on their staff; they see better relations with clients, customers and co-workers once people are employing more dynamic communication skills.
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What is your personal account of how storytelling has impacted your career/life?

I was on a sketch comedy show on MTV in the 90s called The State. After my troupe broke up, I spent 12 years doing solo work onstage, mostly playing characters, but just not getting anywhere with it. My friend Michael Ian Black, who was also a member of my old comedy group The State, said to me, "Why don't you just drop the mask and start telling your own true stories?" I said, "Oh, I'm too weird in too many ways. That seems too risky." He said, "That's the word! If it feels risky, you're probably tapping into stuff you actually care about, and people will care if you care." So I created my podcast RISK!, where people tell true stories they never thought they'd dare to share in public. RISK! now gets 2.5 million downloads per month.

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