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Well-told stories engage people on a personal level and can even drive them to action. | Photo by Beth Macdonald on Unsplash

4 Key Features of Well-Told Stories


Published on September 14, 2021


We’ve all been on the receiving end of stories, and we’ve all likely had similar reactions to them.

There’s the poorly told story — the one where we get lost in the narrative, tune out, and feel bored. Sometimes, we might even feel embarrassed or uncomfortable for the storyteller.

But then there’s the well-told story: The story where we cling to every word and can’t wait to hear what happens next. This is the story that is so absorbing that we lose track of time.

Content certainly plays a role in whether a story is intriguing or not. But, arguably, how a story is told is more important than what the story is about. It is possible for the most interesting topic to bore folks to tears while the most mundane topic can pique their interest if approached in just the right way.

Those working in tourism are already at an advantage: Travelers seek out a destination or experience because they’re already interested in it. They’ve made the decision to engage in the storytelling process. It’s up to the storyteller — whether that’s the marketing team creating social media posts or a tour guide — to look beyond the content and lean into the process to tell a high-quality, well-told story.

So what’s the difference? What is it that makes a story good or bad? And, what key features can you take advantage of to elevate the storytelling process?

Go beyond data and facts.

A lot of travel companies tout an interest in creating “awareness” and “education” among travelers, but these intentions don’t tend to inspire or motivate people if they’re tied up with data. This is one of the problems climate communication has bumped into: Facts do not lead to rational thinking or decision-making; there is an emotional component to storytelling that can not be overlooked.

It’s easy to overwhelm folks with data — especially if the data is “big” or hard for people to fathom. When storytellers are experts in a specific area — whether that’s marine biology or a certain era of history — they might find the data accessible, but it’s important to remember who the audience is.

When possible, humanize facts. Provide relevant, “human” context to aid in understanding. Think about what this data looks (or looked) like for people and communities. Get creative in finding compelling ways to share data-driven stories; using visual props, incorporating music or play-acting, and using humor might help with this.

Create connection.

People are heart-centered, and they tend to have more empathy and connect with stories with which they can relate.

Think about Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs: We all need shelter, clean water, and food to survive. We want to feel safe and secure, and we want the same for our children. We want to feel loved and a sense of belonging. These are universal human values that connect people across geography, religion, socio-economic status, and race.

The best stories don’t keep people at an arm’s distance. They draw listeners in by helping them connect on a deeper level, often through personalized stories that somehow touch on these shared human values. Humanizing stories like this also elicits common emotions (sadness, jealousy, frustration, joy, etc.) we all share as well.

Recognizing that these are universal values is a key piece of helping travelers connect their “at home” experiences with their travel experiences. Use anecdotes and examples that allow travelers to close the gap between these two “different” worlds so they can observe, feel, and understand how their actions as travelers impact the destination they’re visiting as well as their world at home. 

Be memorable.

Tapping into shared human values helps listeners connect with stories, but there are other ways to make stories memorable. These are often tactics not tied to the stories specifically but to the conditions and circumstances in which they are told.

Good storytellers can read the audience. They know what and when to emphasize key points. They understand the power of pacing and tension. They integrate body language into their storytelling, and they also know when to listen and respond.

Matching a hands-on activity with a narrative is also a potent way to elevate the storytelling experience. It’s one thing to learn about the history of a certain traditional meal; it’s quite another to learn about that history while cooking and eating it yourself. The same is true for learning about and creating a work of art, listening to music, building something, or harvesting a crop. Similarly, tour operators talking about climate change and conservation issues with travelers can make these conversations more memorable by incorporating some form of citizen science into their experiences.

Also, keep in mind that, while a singular activity or encounter can make for a wonderful story, there are opportunities to integrate these individual stories into an overarching narrative arc. If you can masterfully connect several micro-stories together, the overarching message is far more memorable.

Drive people to action.

A lot of people turn storytelling into a passive activity — an activity where one person talks and another person listens. Actively engaging listeners in the process using the tactics above is the first step in moving folks from passive listeners into active participants. To help drive people to ongoing action, however, there are a few seeds you can plant throughout the storytelling process.

First, balance any challenges with solutions. What is being done by local communities to address a particular challenge? Who are the changemakers, and how can travelers support them? Help travelers connect these challenges — and solutions — with their “at home” lives so they can contribute to the solution, even if in a tangential way.

Additionally, leave listeners with a sense of self-efficacy. If there is action that can be done, empower people to take action. Instead of leaving them with a sense of apathy and fatalism, underscore the role each individual has in creating meaningful change. This isn’t about “making” someone do something, but it does mean being mindful of the tone and delivery of a story so that people are compelled to act on their own accord. 

Think of this just as you do a traditional tale: This story isn’t over yet. It’s time for travelers to write the next chapter.

JoAnna Haugen

JoAnna Haugen is a writer, public speaker, solutions advocate, and founder of Rooted, a solutions platform at the intersection of sustainable tourism, storytelling, and social impact. Get in touch with her for partnership and collaboration opportunities.


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