It happened 18 years ago, but Kevin Allison remembers the moment like it was yesterday. He was up on stage at the Luna Lounge in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, doing a monologue. One paragraph in, his mind went completely blank and he could not for the life of him remember his next line.
Allison stared wide-eyed at the audience. The room was packed with people sitting cross-legged on the floor, staring up at him, expectant. He decided to do the only thing he knew to do in that moment: Make a run for it. He tried to dodge past the packed audience to make his escape through the exit in back.
"No! Don't go!" people shouted all around him. "You can do it!"
Suddenly, he found himself lifted up—literally—as the audience bodysurfed him back to the stage. Once he was back up there, he had no choice but to go on with his story.
"It was from that experience that I realized, you are never up on stage all alone," says Allison, who today hosts the story-telling podcast RISK! and is founder of The Story Studio in New York and Los Angeles.
Storytelling is Allison's bread and butter. "Everything is related to storytelling," he says. "It's the way we make sense of our lives, our futures and our pasts. ...It opens new doors to new things."
All of that is good and well, but when you're standing in front of a room full of people, all eyes on you, it's not so simple. Even Allison, who'd performed on the MTV sketch comedy show The State has had his deer-in-the-headlights moments.
Since that night at the Luna Lounge, Allison has started teaching storytelling—offering workshops and corporate training programs to help people sharpen their storytelling skills. Here are five tips he teaches his students:
It took humiliating himself on stage for Allison to learn this lesson. Telling a story or giving a speech to an audience by yourself can feel very alienating. Sometimes, you can't help feeling like a talking head. But it doesn't have to be this way, says Allison. Even if you're the only one talking, think of it as a conversation rather than a monologue. "It's so much easier to be in conversation with the audience when you drop the act and simply tell your own stories as yourself," he says.
When you're telling a story about a product or business, it's especially important to know the message you want to leave your audience with before you set out to plan your story. "Stories told for preaching or teaching or marketing or advertising usually end on a really clear recitation for what that story just proved," says Allison. "The first thing you have in mind is what line you want to land on. What is the moral of your story?"
Next, you need to find a way to arrive at this message by using real-life experiences to tell your story. Find a way to pull at the heartstrings of your audience. Every compelling story has at least one character we feel emotionally invested in and often that character is you.
Zero in on those moments in your life when your emotions were ramped-up—whether with excitement, fear, frustration or bewilderment. "That ends up being the blood that flows through the story," says Allison. Your goal is to recreate that moment for your audience. "Put us in your body the day you were staring at the computer screen, exhausted, drinking your fourth cup of coffee of the day, thinking, 'I don’t see any way of moving forward with this,' when suddenly Joe comes in and says, "Hey, I've got it!"
People often resist getting into specifics when telling a story to an audience, worried that they might be wasting everyone's time. As a result, they end up rattling off a list of events much like a timeline. This can be very boring on the receiving end. Rather than racing through your story, vary your pacing, says Allison, adding "proportion" to it.
That means the juicier moments in your story should take up proportionately more room. "Flesh them out and let us experience some sights and sounds, hear actual dialogue, see the daydreams you had in between what people were saying," says Allison. "You want to flesh out a scene when the moments are most dramatic. You want to slow down the narrative trajectory."
Often when preparing a speech or presentation, we write it down, using a more formal tone than we would if we were speaking aloud. Before writing anything down, record yourself telling your story as you would in casual conversation. Listen to the recording and jot down moments you particularly liked. "Put together a script based on how you speak rather than starting from how you write," says Allison.
We all know listening to a recording of your voice is a painful experience. But it gets easier with time. Recording your voice is the only way to really hear how you sound. "We use our voices almost like musical instruments when we tell stories," says Allison. "Using a recording device, you can really hear this. It's a way to become more and more comfortable with your own voice."