What makes a good story?

A group of chimpanzees are sitting in the sunshine in an enclosure at an animal park

We all know the power of a good story, but sometimes it can seem hard to know how to apply that knowledge to our workplace. In today’s blog I’m sharing tips for how to use story techniques in any scenario.

During covid lockdowns, I regularly spent time watching Facebook live videos of the chimp groups at Monkey World in Dorset. I couldn’t tear myself away!

And although the sessions weren’t billed specifically as stories, the team at Monkey World do a fantastic job of story-telling. Across their social media (as well as the Sky TV series), they tell the ongoing story of the primates in their care (as well as of the park as a whole), which keeps me hooked and going back for more.

So what does Monkey World tell us about what makes a good story?

Defining the term

Before I answer that question, I think we need to consider what we mean by a good story. Like many aspects of human communication and interaction, it is a term that means many things to many people.

I tried googling ‘definition of story’ and got pages of results! I tried ‘definition of a good story’ and also found a variety of responses.

At its simplest a story is ‘an account of incidents or events’. And for the purposes of this blog, I’m going to expand that definition to say that a good story is an account of events that engages the audience and is designed to elicit some kind of response from them.

The response could be to take an action or to feel a particular emotion. The desired end result may change over time and/or be different, depending on the audience that are following the story.

The elements of good

Now we need to consider what it is about your story that is going to lead to a response of some sort. That is going to take your story from simply being an account of something to a good story.

I asked my network what makes a story a good story in their view. Responses included:

Plain English – no jargon and acronyms

Empathy/connection to the key protagonists

Something I can share with others

Again we see that there is no one definitive answer, but I believe there is a golden thread that runs through all the responses. People are looking for stories that they can connect with, that mean something to them. You can use this desire for connection in the way that you tell your stories.

Good story checklist

Combining these elements helps you to tell stories that elicit a response from your audience. You may need to vary the weighting for each element, depending on your audience.

1. Characters that your audience cares enough to want to know more about

They need to be recognisable and believable, not necessarily personally relatable. Empathy goes a long way, but so does a desire to see someone get their comeuppance!

2. A plot that engages your audience to want to know what happened as a result

Plots aren’t just for fiction! The way that a series of events connects and the end result of those connections is what keeps the audience hooked. If it doesn’t interest them, they’ll switch off.

3. A setting (or series of them) that speaks to your audience

They might already recognise it, they might want to learn more about it, they might be horrified by it. It needs to say something to them, so that they can react – if it doesn’t connect, it’s a reason to walk away.

4. Easy to access and understand quickly

This is especially true when there’s lots of other ‘noise’ fighting for attention. Ease and speed are created through the language you use, the familiar points you make, the visuals and tech you use.

A well-told story has perhaps never been more important. If you know why you are telling your story – and that reason might simply be to entertain or amuse – following these tips will help to make that story a good one.

Back to the monkeys…

So what is Monkey World doing that makes their stories so good?

1. Each primate has a name and we are regularly told things about their personalities, habits and backgrounds. This means we are getting to know them as characters. (Seamus the chimp is a particular favourite of mine!) This is also true about the primate care staff – my then-10-year-old daughter was mortified when we visited the park and I insisted on taking a photo of one of the keepers I spotted across an enclosure doing some tidying!

2. By talking about their past and then telling us about the different new life the primates now lead, we get to see a progression and connections between the events on show. If a woolly monkey we have got to know is given a new form of enrichment, for example, it’s really exciting to see how they react when they see it.

3. Because I have visited the park a few years ago, I can now imagine exactly where the action is taking place. I can think ‘I stood at that fence’ and looked at that climbing frame, I saw that orangutan’. But even before I had visited myself, I had a frame of reference for the park from other zoos I’ve visited and the set up of the enclosures is regularly explained.

4. I am not a primate biologist, vet or animal husbandry expert. But I don’t need to be in order to enjoy the stories. On the rare occasions when a more complicated term does need to be used, it’s always explained to that the general public aren’t excluded.

Your good story tips

What would you add to this checklist? If you have sure-fire ways to get your audience hooked, I’d love to hear about them.

My own particular interest is to share stories of the kindness that exists in the world. Hope over to my Time for Kindness Instagram feed to see the stories we share. You can also check out the ‘What If’ blogs that I publish to hear more great stories of kindness.

Until next time

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