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Story Circles

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Planning a Story Circles Event.doc  The file includes images to supplement the text.


Planning a Story Circles Event





What are story circles?

Throughout human history, we have gathered around the fire, the kitchen table, on our front porch, in town--wherever we come together--and share our experiences, our memories, and our dreams.  In sitting together, sharing stories, we transmit our culture, we reach out to one another, we learn and we teach, we weave together our families, our friends, our town. To be human means to tell stories.



Why incorporate story circles in a Heart & Soul project?

Sharing stories in a small group helps us to get to know one another better. As we listen to each other’s stories, we come to understand the rich diversity of our voices, and we strengthen our ties with the people and places of our community.  We learn from one another what we value about the town—what we wish to keep and what we want to change. We begin to build a future together.



What does a story circle look like?  How do we plan for one?

Story circles come in all shapes and sizes.  We have found the following guidelines lead to rewarding events aimed at bringing people together:


Group Size

Groups of 6-8 people work well. It is a small enough group that everyone gets a chance to share, but not so big as to lose that sense of intimacy. Larger groups take a lot of time! 

In a city-wide event, people put themselves (or are put) into groups of 6-8, seeking out people they do not know well.  (See the sheet, Tips for Story Circle Facilitators)



To get a good sense of what your group/neighborhood/community values, whose story needs to be heard?  Will you invite everyone?  Will you go out and invite individuals personally?



Someone’s house?  A favorite informal gathering spot?  A formal, neutral space in town? Outside if you plan a walking story circle.  It is important to select a location where invitees will feel comfortable and welcome. (In Victor, Idaho we held a story circles event in a historic playhouse rich in community history and resonance for just about everyone in town.)



Just as stories bring us together, so does food. Have a potluck (sharing what we have prepared in our kitchens is a kind of storytelling), or offer foods rich in connection to the place.  Coffee and cookies work wonders, too!



*Note: Make sure you discuss what you mean by story.

If people do not know one another well, and the purpose of the event is to get to know one’s neighbors, one’s community, then it might be useful to ask people to bring a story about a place or a person or an experience that illustrates what they find special about the community.  An event might also be theme-focused:

Past-Present-Future Stories

Stories about Place: the Physical Environment

Stories about the Character of the Community

Stories about Specific Issues: e.g. garden stories, or childhood stories, or farm stories



Invitation sent to Damariscotta, Maine residents for their first story-circles event, a celebration of community that also included values harvesting




To help people feel comfortable in a creative space, try out one or more of the following:


Ideas for Story Stirrers: A Selection of Fun Exercises


1.     Pin up a large map of the town and give each person two sticky dots. Have them stick their dots on two places they consider “story hotspots”—places that hold important stories about the community, stories without which the full community story could not be told. Share these stories as described below.  If you have a group quite at ease with storytelling and a skilled facilitator, you could ask people to place Color A dot on a place they want to stay the same, and a Color B dot on a place they would like to change. (It takes skill as a facilitator to move a group comfortable out of celebration and into deliberation.)

2.     After people tell their stories, have them imagine the same story ten years into the future.  Have them tell it.  Discuss what the differences tell you about planning for the future.

3.     In pairs, have people draw a map of the town and dot it with story hotspots.  Have them share these choices and explore the connection between the physical and non-physical aspects of the stories—where does landscape and place end, and community begin?

4.     Give out nametags and have people write their names AND five  places they associate with the Heart & Soul of the community.  Share these as the opening exercise.

5.     Have people bring a photo or an object that somehow illustrates a connection they have to the town, and to be ready to share the story that goes with that object.

6.     First Impressions: Tell the story of your first memory of your town. Tell a more recent story that connects to or reverses that first impression.

7.     Place a set of Pictures-of-the Town (100 small photo cards—possible to order from Moo.com and Zazzle.com—you send them the images, they send you the cards) in the center of a table and have everyone choose five. Have them create a five-image story.  Everyone looks at the images stories and tells new stories prompted by the photos.

8.     Imagine that this story circle is preparing to write a book entitled The Guidebook to Your Town’s Heart & Soul.  Brainstorm a list of stories to include in the book.  Sort them into chapters. What would they be? Share stories and talk about how the chapter headings reveal important values held about living in this community.

9.     Have people draw the Heart & Soul of the community. Arrange these drawings into a paper quilt.  Have people share the stories of those drawings, or choose a drawing they did not create and tell a story prompted by that drawing, a story that gets at something they value about this place.

10.  Hand people blank postcards. Write a story-letter to the town about something you value about living here. Imagine the postcard reaching town in ten years—what do you wish to tell people a decade from now?  Share the stories. Send these postcards to the storytelling committee.

11.  Draw a set of postcards: The Only Thing You Need to Know about Town

12.  A Wishbook for Our Community: at the end of the story circle event, pass around the wishbook and have each person add a drawing, their story, or their wish for the future of the town.











  • Make it as fun and easy for your participants as possible:
  • Send invitations, ask for RSVPs and follow-up with phone calls to remind them of the event. Gather materials and set up the space. Have you invited children?  If so, will someone lead activities for the younger ones?
  • Practice story circles with your friends and family, so you feel comfortable leading a story circle.

Possible Formats




  1. In a circle, one by one, with no interruptions or commentary or questions, each person shares a story.  The quiet is important, for people will quite naturally wish to ask clarifying questions, or what-then questions, or to share my-version-of-the-story.  We want to deepen our listening. If someone just wishes to listen, that’s fine.  After going around the circle once, ask those who passed if they would like to share a story now.
  2. Go around the circle again, having people respond to what they heard.  Everyone can ask questions, connect stories they heard to their own experiences.  Enjoy one another.  Encourage the group to remember specific images, details and phrases that surprised or moved them.
  3. Give everyone a set of sticky notes and have them jot down details from what they heard that strike them as memorable, and illustrative of what they value about the town. One detail/quote/theme per sticky note.  Post them to a large sheet of paper.  Have the group arrange these into groups of themes and values and issues.  Have the group decide on what they would like to share with the entire community—is there a story form the group that especially reveals something essential about the place?  What values from this event would you wish to share with the larger community?  Are there themes and issues you would like to see the town discuss and work on as part of planning for the future? Were there surprises? Have someone take notes to give to the Heart & Soul project coordinator, and read them back to the group, asking, “Did we capture the important threads of this story circle?  Did we miss something?” Have at your ready a list of questions that help bring out the meanings from the stories, and help the storytellers add details and examples of what they mean.
  4. Ask the group for feedback about the gathering. Would they be willing to record their stories?  Would they like to write their story down and have it published online, on a postcard, or in a newsletter?  Would they like to be trained as a story circle facilitator? 
  5. Would they be interested in participating in a story circle that brought together people from other groups?



More Complex: A Walking Story Circle


  1. Have people RSVP to your invitation by sharing the location of the story they would like to tell, or the location about which they want to hear stories.
  2. Someone gathers these locations onto a Google map and onto a large map printed for the occasion. Create a list of several mini-story tours, and a map for each tour. These can be crafted in many ways: randomly, to visit the widest area, to visit a story-cluster only.  It all depends on what you get in the RSVP and the number and variety of story locations offered.
  3. Have people visit the map during the early moments of the gathering, noticing locations, hotspots, empty spots.  Have them look for their name on a tour sheet.  If they did not RSVP but have a story, have them add a push pin to the map, locating that story, and have them add their name to a tour group.
  4. Gather the full group and explain that they have one hour for the tour—six stories, a walk, and conversation. 
  5. Return to the full group and share the revelations and work on harvesting values (see Simple Format).




  • People bring pictures or written stories to pin to the map.  These objects are photographed and entered onto the digital map.


  • Each group is given a video and or still camera and audio recorder to capture the tour, especially the stories. These can be shared on Community Almanac.  They can be put into a podcast version and housed at the library (or elsewhere) on iPods with tour maps to check out and follow.  People can add their stories by recording onto the iPod if they are also given an iTalk recorder device to clip onto the iPod.  Schoolchildren and families can build story tours.  Lots of possibilities here.  Other neighborhoods can include a tour of previous neighborhood events and compare the stories, the values, the details, looking for common ground.


  • Several stories are prepared in advance and form the backbone of a neighborhood tour.  The group listens to these stories in their locations (either a storyteller awaits them there, or they bring along a recording—kids are great to involve in this by being storytellers-in-place) and responds to these stories with their own.  Prepared stories can be from the past (pull from the historical society or the museums), and the stories the neighborhood tells, of the present AND of the future.













Story Circle Facilitator Training



Just about anyone can train to facilitate a story circle.  To grow a story-circle movement in your town and ensure people from every corner of the community feel welcome at story circle events, encourage everyone, especially the hubs of groups (see Chapter 000 on Community Mapping), to attend a facilitator workshop—the trainings alone strengthen bonds and build bridges across a community if you train a group of people who do not know one another well. 


To train a group of volunteers to lead basic story circles as outlined above, including harvesting values, plan on two-three hours depending on how familiar the group is with the Heart & Soul project and processes.










 HOUR ONE: Introduction to Story Circles through a Story Circle


1. Getting Acquainted through a Story Circle Exercise

Here are two ideas for introducing facilitator trainees to one another and to story circles.


A. Object Stories


Special objects (see below)

3' square sticky notes, enough for everyone to have at least six

One large map of the town

A set of small removable sticky dots

Time Needed:

30 -60 minutes, depending on size of group


To introduce the group to one another through story, image and metaphor as well as to some of the concepts about stories and storytelling covered during the workshop

In advance:

Tell everyone to bring in an object that suggests their relationship to the community.  Let them know that they will be telling a story about that connection.


 PART ONE: Exploring the objects (10 minutes)


1.  If the group numbers more than ten participants, split up into groups of 4-5.  If possible, sit around small tables.


2.  Place the objects in the center of the table. Look at them, but don't discuss them.


3.  Each person takes six sticky notes.  Write down a word or phrase on each note in response to the array of objects. (6 notes, 6 words or phrases)  What do they tell you about the town/community?  What do they reveal that's special to this town, that makes it unique?


4.  As a small group, stick the notes to a nearby wall or sheet of paper given to you, and look for patterns, for distinctions. Arrange them according to patterns you discover, and discuss the similarities and/or differences between responses. 

PART TWO: Telling the stories  (30 minutes)


5.  The workshop leader will time a minute. Participants listen to the contours of a minute. She will time a second minute.  Participants think about how in this timeframe they will tell the story relating this object to their sense of the community.  What is offered by this time constraint?  How does it feel to know you are about to share your story with a group, aloud?


6. The workshop leader will be the timer.  One by one, with no discussion between tellers, participants will tell their stories to their small groups.


7.  Once all the stories have been shared, discuss

 a. striking moments. What do you remember most vividly?  Why?  What do you notice about these stories?

b. what you notice about yourself as a storyteller, as a listener.  What is the effect of being in a story circle?

c. how you might "catch" one of these stories--choose one of the stories that seems to have potential to bring "news" to the community about itself or one that gets right to the heart of an important point related to the Heart & Soul Planning Initiative. What would you add or revise to the storyline in order to extract more meaning? What kinds of media would you choose for the telling?  How might it be shared?


8.  As a full group, discuss results from #7 and what you have gleaned from this exercise--from the act of telling stories to a group to listening to them, to discussing them.


 9. As a group, locate the stories literally, on a map of the town with small sticky dots and figuratively--how they relate to one another, talk to one another, and talk to and for the community.











B. Introduction to Story Circles through a Role-Playing Exercise

If the group you are training is quite large, and there is but one trainer, and the attendees have not participated in a story circle, you might start off with a role-play demonstration of story circles.


1.  Give everyone eight removable sticky dots, 2 each of four colors, and a pad of sticky notes.  Place a wall-sized map of the town (as big a map as you can find) on the wall. 


2.  Ask the group to do the following:


  • Look closely at the town map and think of the stories they know about the town.


  • On a sticky note, place a dot of Color A and jot a list of personal stories that have to do with a place on the map.


  • On a second sticky note, place a dot of Color B and jot down a list of stories that do not involve them personally but they have heard about a place in town.


  • On the third sticky note have them place a dot of Color C and jot down a list of places they would like to hear stories about.


  • Have everyone choose one story/place from each list and place a dot of each corresponding color up to locate the story on the map.  Everyone should place three dots total.


  • As a group, look at the map and discuss what is striking about the dots:  are there patterns?  Clusters?  “Lonely” dots?  What piques your curiosity?  Which stories do you want to hear?  Why?


  • As a group, without knowing whose dots are whose on the map, or what stories they represent, choose four stories you just have to hear from their corresponding dots, two dots of Color A and one each of Color B & C.  If one person has more than one dot chosen, select an alternate.  You want to choose four people’s stories.


  • The four people whose dots have been selected by the group become the story circle story sharers. 


3.  Explain the Story Rounds:

  • Round One: Story Sharing: the four story sharers each have up to three minutes to tell their story represented by the dot on the map. One by one, with a silent pause between stories, they share their stories. (10 minutes)
  • Round Two: Responding: the four can ask one another questions, respond from their own experience, and connect to each other’s stories. (5 minutes)
  • Round Three: Values Harvesting: On a stack of sticky notes, the foursome comes up with a list of values, clusters them into themes, and maps them for overlaps and relationships. They discuss the outcomes.  (10 minutes)


4.  In the meantime, the rest of the group will be watching, thinking about facilitating a group using this process.  They take notes and after the Story Rounds, discuss ways to bring out stories, manage group dynamics without squelching personalities, and ensure a good outcome from the values harvesting.



HOUR TWO: Planning & Facilitating Story Circles


Go Over Tips on Preparing for the Conversation:


1.    Themes:

Understand the purpose of the evening:  Are you wishing to inform people?  Consult them?  Involve them?  Bring them together?  Brainstorm questions carefully, looking for focused but open-ended questions that should lead to rich stories.  Think about the poles of the community—how might you frame the evening so that everyone feels welcome and included, that this night is for anyone who wants to attend.


2.    Ground Rules:

Decide on whether you will establish ground rules ahead of time or with the group.  Some possible guidelines: do not interrupt, keep to the time, listen fully, be respectful—share stories that harm no one.


3.    Recording:

Will you be recording the session?  If so, have permission sheets ready. Make sure you know how to use recording devices if you will use them.  Test the recorder just before the session. Think about the pros and cons of recording story circles.


4.    Practice:

It is easy to feel nervous and want to fill the silences or to get everyone to focus.  It’s important to let the conversation find its own way, with you gently enabling it to move according to its way, not inserting yourself unless things are really going awry. Test the questions by coming up with your own answers.  Have examples ready to offer. Practice your own detailed but brief introductory story in case you need to give them an example.


5.    Props:

Write the question(s) and ground rules on a flip chart or card on the table (if you are using tables).

Think about your role as facilitator:  your job is to help your group have a rewarding experience, which means you will serve as guide not as participant.  Do you need props to assist you?



Go Over the Facilitator’s Role During the Conversation


  1. Set a positive, relaxed tone.  Your emotions, attitudes will be felt and affect the experience.  Levity from time to time can help, but be careful not to dominate through your personality.



  1. Open with an overview of the purpose, the ground rules, and a brief introduction of each person “What brings you here tonight?” 



  1. If you need a conversation starter, you can use a fun, quick exercise that gets them relaxed and ready.  Fill in the blanks (MadLibs), or look at an image of the town and list five words about it.



  1. Help the conversation really take off by saying, “Think about…” and then asking a focused yet open question that invites a spectrum of emotion to make people feel welcome to talk about the things that are good about the town or need changing.  Using the terms “experiences” and  “examples” can sometimes produce better stories than the word “story” which can seem intimidating (“I’m not a storyteller!”)  If your group wants more guidance, you can start off with your own story—your brief, yet detailed story in answer to the question.



  1. Make sure you do not punctuate the conversation with your own thoughts--you do not need to speak after each participant.  This is crucial if you are to avoid dominating the conversation and turning it into an interview. You can write things down on a flip chart (or have someone else do this, or pass out sticky notes to everyone).  SILENCE does not need to be filled.  Give people room to think, to explore, to experience.



  1. If someone in the group is a known talker and might well dominate or even interrupt others, sit next to that person.  Not being able to have eye contact with the facilitator can reduce the urge to talk.



  1. If someone goes way off topic, do not interrupt. When there’s an opening, ask the person to relate the story or statement to the topic.  If someone starts to spout positions rather than interests, or get rather heated, inject light humor or gently ask the person a question to move things to a positive place.  “Tell us more about….”



  1. Emphasize the positive—what did we hear that we want to keep?  That we want to work towards?



  1. Close the conversation by expressing your appreciation and asking them for ideas about next steps, and interest in volunteering for the project. 








1. In groups of six, pull cards that denote your part in the story-circle role play. Only the facilitator reveals his /her role.  The others will act your parts but not tell the others what role you have.  Make sure that in acting, you are responding to the moment.  Do not merely be difficult of you are the skeptic, for example.


Note: This exercise is not meant to imply that story circles will be challenging.  Most are not in the least, but it’s important to be ready for difficulties should they arise.


  • Facilitator
  • Shy Person who would like to remain silent
  • Dominating Personality who wants to fill the space with his/her story
  • Skeptic, who comes in with a prove-that-this-works attitude
  • Cooperative Story sharer
  • Cooperative Story sharer


2.  Playing your assigned roles, move through shortened versions of the three rounds, 10 minutes/round.


3.  Debrief—what happened?  What did you observe from your role’s viewpoint?  What tips can you add to the list above on facilitating community conversations?


4.  As a full group, share the small-group experiences. Workshop trainer should compile and distribute the tips, perhaps creating a Wordle to highlight recommended practices.


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