What Makes a Good Story and Why Storytelling Is Important

UPDATED: July 8, 2024
PUBLISHED: July 9, 2024
male speaker on stage

“If you are human, you love stories. Why? We’re hardwired to love stories because they help us understand our world and are essential to our evolution.” 

How Your Story Sets You Free, by Heather Box and Julian Mocine-McQueen

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What makes a good story? And why is storytelling so important to us?

According to a study by the National Library of Medicine, “narratives that cause us to pay attention and also involve us emotionally are the stories that move us to action.” And no one knows this better than Heather Box and Julian Mocine-McQueen, authors and co-founders of The Million Person Project. “It’s in those stories and in those narratives that we really get to know one another,” Box says. “I’m telling this story to reveal [what I value] in the world.”

Finding your voice

I loved speaking with Box and Mocine-McQueen, not only because what they do is fascinating, but because I recently began writing and sharing my own personal story — a skill that helped me find my voice and community after my son was born with disabilities. He faced inclusion and accessibility challenges, so sharing my story opened doors for both of us. But learning what and how to share has been an uphill battle, one that Box and Mocine-McQueen know how to support.

“People usually fall [into] one extreme,” Box says. “[They] are so familiar with the idea of [storytelling]… [but] when it comes to… know[ing] what parts of [their] story to tell, a lot of people get stuck, and they end up finding one story that they just repeat over and over… [even if] they don’t really feel connected with [it]. … [Or they think they] don’t have [a story], or [their story is] too personal or too heavy, [so they] wouldn’t know how to share it.”

Many of their clients, entrepreneurs and leaders from about 70 different countries, are already out in the world doing the work they feel passionate about. They want to use their narrative to deepen their impact. Some want help creating a TED Talk or keynote address, and others want to educate people to help raise funds or help others understand a nonprofit’s vision. But how do you let someone in? You don’t just say, “I value compassion,” or “I value hard work.” You need to explain how that value impacts you. How does it show up in your life and in your work? 

“One of the most important things for people [to] know… is that you are your own first audience member. The story, first and foremost, needs to be meaningful to you because… the audience can feel [when it’s not],” Box says. Mocine-McQueen adds that when you keep your purpose and the values behind your story central to why you are sharing it, your audience can find a point of connection. In this way, your story becomes about both you and your audience, not just about you. 

Life mapping your story

“A lot of times, people are asked very specifically, ‘What’s your motivation?’” Mocine-McQueen says. “Or ‘Why are you doing this?’ Or ‘What’s the story with this product… or this project you’re working on?’… Life mapping is where we start.” He encourages people to take “a big step back to look at the elements of [their lives].

This is the fun part. Grab a large piece of paper, colored pencils, a snack and music that helps you relax. Start at the beginning and map out your life. A few basics you can start with are key turning points, influential people, major challenges, milestones that you celebrated, moments you’ll never forget, big choices you made and big choices that were made for you.

Accepting both the good and hard moments is another important step. Our lives have ups and downs, and they all impact who we are. “Spending time with the full story is not something we take the opportunity to do very often. … You will be surprised at some of the threads and connections you see when you [identify the key moments that shaped you]. … You can really get a fuller sense of yourself and your guiding values,” Mocine-McQueen adds.

Not every story has to come from a dramatic experience. Lessons about “compassion or generosity can come from a quiet, introspective life” according to Box and Mocine-McQueen’s guidebook, How Your Story Sets You Free. Some people may not want to share their story with a large audience. Still, sharing a valuable story in a smaller setting, such as at work, with a religious group or even around the kitchen table at home, is just as important.

Box and Mocine-McQueen’s guidebook also includes exercises that help readers identify who their story’s audience is and what impact they want to have on others, which is a key metric in storytelling. People often assume they can share their message with the whole world, but “having a single person in mind helps you keep your message on track and stay true to your values. If you are talking to everyone, you are usually talking to no one,” Box and Mocine-McQueen write in their book.

Everyone has a story that is worth sharing, and Box and Mocine-McQueen are especially supportive of women and minorities who have been less represented historically. “People try to do a really good job of bringing diversity onto their panels and into their conferences, but it’s [still not equal],” Box says.

For women of color, Box explains, “the statistics are so low.” This means that large parts of history are not being told. Important stories are missing. The same applies to gender-nonconforming individuals.

By learning how to tell their stories and finding the right mediums to share them with, these groups will find a community waiting to see themselves represented. Box and Mocine-McQueen hope to shepherd that change into the world.

Stories are the fabric of society, and “we want our culture to be truly representative of who we are [and] the stories being told,” Box says. “We need a huge new wave of storytellers… [with] diverse life experiences [who are] doing so many things in the world right now. … There’s an urgent need for this new wave of storytellers to take the mic and allow themselves to be known.”

Photo credit: l i g h t p o e t/Shutterstock.com