Storytelling is an effective way of sharing knowledge between people that incorporates context, emotion, and tacit knowledge. In a short amount of time, a wealth of information with a high level of detail can be expressed. Not only does the listener learn from the story, but the storyteller can gain new insights to what they are describing through the practice of telling their story.

A Good Story Is…

  • About an event — something that really happened to you or someone you know
  • “When I was ……..”
  • “My friend told me about when he …..”
  • Told from your perspective.
  • Different people see things differently.
  • This is important, as much of the richness of opinions and ideas comes out only if you tell the story from your viewpoint.
  • A description of something that happened at a specific time
  • “Last year when I was working on …..”

Why Tell Stories?

  1. To share knowledge between members of a group
  • Stories help members of a group build relationships. Ask members to tell a story about a topic the group members are interested in, for example, “Think about a time when you felt really successful in counseling a patient.”  You don’t need to use the word “story”—you can just ask people to tell about that experience.
  • It is helpful for the facilitator to give an example so that participants can understand the length and detail expected. 
  • Relationships are built in small groups, not large groups. Have participants tell their stories in small groups (4-6 people), rather than to the whole room. Telling a story to a large group feels like “public speaking,” while telling a story to a small group feels like talking to friends.  
  • Stories can be quick: 2-3 minutes is all that is needed.
  • Ask members to tell about a success.  Only after members have built a strong trust relationship should you ask people to tell stories of failure.
  • After a group meeting, members may forget the names of others they met, but they will remember their stories. And from the story, they will remember how they connected with that person because they could identify with the story.
  1. To gain greater understanding of a complex issue
  • Stories contain context and reasoning as well as facts. This helps the members who are listening learn: 1) why the storyteller took a specific action, and 2) what the conditions were that required that action.  By contrast, PowerPoint bullets only provide the what, not the why.
  • When the story provides listeners an understanding of the context and reasoning, it allows them to decide if the solution would be effective in their own context.
  • Because stories naturally have an emotional content (how the person felt about the situation described), the storyteller seems more approachable. Members who listen to another member tell a story are more willing to give that person a follow-up call or email to learn more detail about what happened.
  • Stories can also allow the storyteller to reflect on a specific insight.  The storyteller might be asked, “When you implemented [the activity], tell about a time when you were frustrated or pleasantly surprised.” 
  1. To build stronger relationships between members
  • Invite 5-10 people to a story circle to talk about a difficult issue they all face.  Make sure the group is made up of peers only.
  • By collecting a large group of stories on a specific issue, for example, “Tell a story about your experience working with the community health teams,” it is possible to analyze the stories to determine how to help participants get up to speed faster.

Ground Rules for Storytelling

  • Be honest and open.
  • Be respectful of others — their experiences, anecdotes, and ideas.
  • Celebrate the people who share "things that went wrong.”  Sharing such stories takes courage.
  • Give permission to not use the real names of people in the story. What is important are the issues or themes across all the stories. Instead of naming individuals, the storyteller can describe personalities and characteristics.
  • Listen - Give people a chance to share their stories without interruption.
  • Share context – Encourage storyteller to make their stories as vivid and as rich as they can.
  • Give examples – don’t just state concerns.
  • Set the ground rule that members don’t correct others about what happened as the other is telling a story. The issue is not accuracy but perspective.  If someone interrupts with a correction, ask them to wait and then tell the story from their perspective when the current storyteller is finished.
  • At the end, let participants know what will happen with the stories and how they will be used.

Example of Using Storytelling in a Large Group

Activity: Have people gather in small groups of three to five. The facilitator should explain the exercise and ask someone (usually this is arranged ahead of time) to tell an example story.  In each small group, each member has two minutes to tell a story centered on a question provided by the facilitator. Use a bell or other signal to let all groups know when it’s time to begin and when it’s time to go on to the next story.  After two minutes, the next person begins their story.

Once each person in the small group has told their two-minute story, everyone is asked to get up and find a new small group of three to five people that have not yet heard their story. Repeat the process of each person sharing a two-minute story in groups of three to five people. Continue until each person has had the chance to tell their story three or four times.

Processing: Bring everyone back into the large group.  One way to process what people heard in the stories is for the facilitator to ask people to share what they learned from the stories they heard and from the act of telling them. What new methods have they heard about? What insights have they gained into the problem being discussed? What do they want to know more about?

Another way is to ask everyone to “vote” on the one story that “most resonates” with them.  A simple way to accomplish such voting in a large group is to ask each person to put her or his hand on the shoulder of the person whose story most resonated with them.  Participants will soon be linked in clumps of people, all with one hand on the shoulder of specific person.  The person with the most hands on his or her shoulder can be identified as the storyteller with the most captivating story.  Ask the chosen storyteller to retell the story to the entire group.

Report Author(s): 
Nancy M. Dixon
Common Knowledge Associates
ASSIST publication: 
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