The revelation of vast global quantities of potentially productive gas and oil-prone shales has led to advancements in understanding important geological properties which impact reservoir performance. Based upon research on a variety of shales, several geological properties have been recognized as being common and important to hydrocarbon production. (1) transport/depositional processes include hemipelagic ‘rain’, hyperpycnal flows, turbidity current flows, tempestites, wave-reworking, and contour currents in both shallow and deep water settings. (2) Common shale minerals include clays, quartz, calcite, dolomite, apatite, and pyrite; organic constituents include spores (Tasmanites), plant remains, biogenic quartz and calcite, and arenaceous foraminifera. (3) Porosity and permeability are characteristically low with pore sizes ranging down to the nanoscale. Main pore types include intergranular (including pores within clay floccules), porous organic matter, porous fecal pellets, and microfractures. (4) Important geochemical characteristics include organic richness (>3%), maturity (>1.1%Ro for shale gas and 0.6–0.9% for shale oil) and type (I–IV), in addition to certain biomarkers which are indicators of bottom water oxicity during deposition. Remaining hydrocarbon potential [RHP = (S1 + S2)/TOC] also reflects temporal environmental changes. ‘Isotopic reversals’ can be used to detect best producing areas in shale-gas plays. (5) Lithofacies stacking patterns and sequence stratigraphy are the result of eustatic depositional history. A general sequence stratigraphic model is presented here that highlights this commonality. (6) Geomechanical properties are key to drilling, fracturing and production of hydrocarbons. Brittle-ductile couplets at several scales occur in shale sequences. (7) Geophysical properties, when calibrated to rock properties, provide a means of regionally to locally mapping the aforementioned properties. (8) Economic and societal considerations in the exploration and development of resource shales are garnering attention. Many potentially economic shale-gas and shale-oil plays are being identified globally. Risks and uncertainties associated with gas- and oil-rich shales include the lack of long-term production histories, environmental concerns related to hydraulic fracturing, uncertainty in calculating hydrocarbons-in-place, and fluctuations in supply, demand, and price.