Storytelling Ideas & Exercises

Here is a sampling of storytelling exercises you are welcome to use.  Keep in mind that these are suggestions, guidelines only; you will want to tailor any exercise to your group depending on group size, prior experience with storytelling approaches, objectives, the context of the gathering, etc.

Story Plunge & Micro Exercises

Journey into Storytelling

Open a training/workshop/gathering/meeting with participants sharing one-minute stories of an experience with the topic (e.g. stories about what drew them to the community, or an experience with the heart of the community).

Name Tags
To pull away the buffer of language’s padding & point directly to what matters, write your name in the center of the name tag.  In the spaces around your name write five words that suggest what you value about this topic, or five places where you see this topic at work, or…

Pass out photos (landscapes, macro-shots, people shots—it almost doesn’t matter what images you choose), one to a person.  Each person writes down a metaphor suggested by that image for the topic at hand: e.g. a quality of the community or a challenge within the community. Pass the photo and metaphor one person to the right; that person extends or deepens or responds to the original metaphor.  In pairs discuss the results.

Draw the Map
Hand out several crayons per person (or put a large assortment of crayons in the center of the table) and ask participants to draw the map of their community. Share and compare.

Draw the Community
Hand out crayons and paper.  Ask everyone to draw the community through color, symbol, abstraction.  Share and compare, even assemble a larger community portrait from the individual versions.

Future Stories
Yes…and” stories. I take this one from the world of improv. Participants build a story of the future (from practical to wildest dreams) in a quick, fun, pass-the-story exercise. (Let me know if you want details.)

“Headlines.” Write the headline of the newspaper in five years telling the story of what you’ve accomplished. Pass the headline to a partner, have the partner complete the story. Compare & discuss.

“What Could Be” Tell a story about a specific moment from the past that inspires you in your work for change. Build on the actual details of that story to recast it in the future. What has to change? What can continue on the same way?

 Visual Stories

Visual Stories

Express experience through visuals—we often get into ruts of thinking when we tell the same stories again and again, using the same words.  Pulling away some of that language, or accompanying the language with a concrete, visual symbol can shake up our understanding, make things fresh, give us new insight, open our eyes, help us to listen deeply.

Object Stories
Participants bring an object that represents something they value about the community. In a circle, one by one, share the objects and related stories following the story-circle approach.

Map Stories
A. Pin up a large map of the geographically-bounded community 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 at ease with storytelling and a skilled facilitator, you could ask people to place a 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, Color C on a place they’d like to know more about.

B. Have participants draw a one-minute map of their hometown/neighborhood/street/wherever-you-are.  Then give them a minute to locate story hotspots on it.  In pairs, have them tell a story about that place and compare maps.  Have them discuss what draws them to these places–what they notice in common, and what is individual.

Photo Stories
Take photos of places that suggest the heart of the community; share the photos & their stories.  Have the group add their own stories prompted by seeing the photos and hearing the stories.  (This exercise is a good one for online groups as well, using a mapping tool.)  You can also ask participants to take photos that suggest the NOW of the community and then photos that point to what they hope for the community in 20 years

 Postcards Home Exercise
Hand out blank index cards.  Tell them that they are writing postcards to their home community with a wish for that community in the fairly near future–and that the community will receive that card in ten years. Have them draw an image on one side, and write the card on the other.  Have them share in groups of four.  Reflect back to the full group PLUS collect the postcards, photograph them together in a large quilt.

Story Circles

Story Circle

Divide large gatherings into groups of six-eight people who do not know one another well. (You can also help this along by handing out numbers when people arrive)

Have small groups open with an overview of the purpose, the ground rules, and a brief introduction of each person “What brings you here tonight?”

Help the conversation 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.

One scenario that works well:  first round—go around the circle, each person offers an example, an experience, an anecdote in response to the question. Go around the circle again, having people share insights gained from these stories.  A third round could be more informal, a conversation including questions & responses.  Another scenario allows for interruption by the facilitator if it seems as though additional detail would enhance the story.  “Could you give an example?”  “Could you tell us more about that?”

Make sure as a facilitator 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.

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 speak.

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….”

Use sticky notes to jot down keywords about what people heard (one sticky note per value/keyword/theme/topic).  Make sure you emphasize the positive—what did we hear that we want to keep?  That we want to work towards?

Have everyone post their sticky notes to a flip chart sheet and then cluster them by theme. Group similar or related values to locate potential common ground and discrepancies within a group’s stories, to provide a springboard to discussion that can specify as precisely as possible what is meant by one of the more general terms people often latch onto when they first try to harvest values.  For example, many groups come up with “friendliness” or “natural beauty” as qualities they value in their communities.  We’re trying to get them to say more, which we do by drilling down into that word, by looking at the word next to similar words, and in relation to other values. Looking at the values as a group can reveal conflicts between values as well as common ground, providing an authentic, detailed picture of sorts of the community. They can, if they wish, prioritize the values as well and discuss qualities of the community that did not come out of these stories but that are important to them.

Draw out more detail by drawing rays/arms/branches to link ideas and to add more specificity.  Discuss the results.


  1. Great exercises! Some I knew, some not. I love the Map Stories with story hotspots!

  2. Vanessa Johnson says:

    Love these exercises! As a Griot and as a playwright, I work with kids, teaching storytelling and drama. Will be using some of these exercises with them.

  3. Wangari Grace says:

    I love this. Asante!

  4. Luke Moyer says:

    Love some of these ideas. Could you give me more details on the “future stories” activity? I like the idea of combining improv and storytelling.

    • When I work with communities and nonprofits, they often feel constrained by the challenges, the potential obstacles to envisioning a better future, and so I like to invite them to drop all “buts” in this exercise. We take a broad future topic, say: The story of town in thirty years, or a narrow one, “Your favorite story of a client who first comes to you five years from now.” One person starts the story by starting to paint the picture of the context, perhaps by giving us the setting, a character, an event. The next person in the circle continues the story with “Yes, and…” And on it goes from person to person. Each new bit of the story must both be a direct outgrowth of the story bits preceding it and something entirely new. That’s one way. A quicker version is to get each person to finish the statement: If we were ten time bolder with this initiative, we would…. Each person after the first would start “Yes, and…” again, with a nod to the statement before while moving in a new direction. At then end, you can map the story as it unfolded. Lots to learn about listening in this one.

  5. Thanks! I found the ideas inspirational. I’m trying to develop an interactive exercise for my university class. I’d be interested also in improvisational future stories.

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