5 Rules for Telling A Good Story

Anecdote: Apparently the children’s television host Fred Rogers used to carry a note in his pocket with the quote (attributed to Mary Lou Kownacki): “There isn’t anyone you couldn’t love once you’ve heard their story.” That’s the power of a good story: it reveals our essential humanity and shows, beneath all difference of context and circumstance, what we all have in common. And imagine what the world—or just your life—would be like if it were founded on that kind of compassion and empathy. So let’s build that. Starting with a good story. Your story. Follow these rules and there won’t be anyone who couldn’t love you.


  1. Is about something that happened to you AND WHAT YOU DID ABOUT IT.
    1. That time you spilled tomato soup on your crush/a superior/the president=anecdote. That time you spilled tomato soup on your crush/a superior/the president AND THEN spilled some on yourself on purpose in solidarity and turned a disaster into the life of the party=a story.
    2. What you did about it could also be a choice to do nothing, or a choice you’re not proud of. Your reflection on that and what change it ultimately triggers for you could still be a good, humble, authentic, relate-able story.
  2. Touches on something PRIMAL.
    1. No matter what the plot or setting or main character(s), the most powerful stories turn on something basic and essential about being human. Something beyond opinion or politics; something about the needs and wants our lizard brains all share. Something like: sustenance, connection, belonging. This is where the empathy starts.
  3. Contains a PROBLEM.
    1. When you’re telling stories in the social justice space, this shouldn’t be too hard!
    2. The problem is the challenge faced by the main character (you).
    3. At its heart, it’s usually about a primal need going unmet (#2) and what you do/did about it (#1).
  4. Turns on one MOMENT that is THE moment.
    1. Surely you have had lots of important formative moments. Pick one. The one that most vividly captures the before/after shift you want to present. The one you could describe as “the moment it all changed.”
    2. Make sure to tell it like a MOMENT. Don’t summarize it. Don’t paraphrase. Give us dialogue. Bring us there. Tell it in present tense if that helps. That’s where your story peaks.
  5. Has a BEGINNING, MIDDLE, and an END.
    1. If you’re Dorothy, this is Kansas, Oz, Kansas. Most important: even though Dorothy winds up back in Kansas, everything has changed.
    2. You should change by the end of your story, too. Doesn’t have to be big. You don’t even have to be satisfied by or done with the change (yet). But it does, at some level, need to be your Kansas 2.0.

The act of imposing such rules, structure, and reflection is what makes what you’re sharing not your “process,” but your story. That’s what also makes crafting it owning it for yourself, too—which is why Mr. Rogers’s beloved quote applies to you, too.