Storytelling (or the story dialogue technique) was refined in Canada by Labonte and Featherstone (1996) but is actually a much older idea which builds on traditional, oral communication and learning techniques. Labonte developed the method as a means of recognising and respecting the expertise that people have in their own lives in relation to community development and health issues. The storytelling takes place in a supportive group setting, although it could be adapted for use in a one-to-one situation for those with less confidence. The process is structured so that valuable personal experiences are used to draw out important themes and issues affecting the community and then action can be planned around these insights.

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How to do it


  • Storytelling uses a mixture of story and structured dialogue based on four types of question: 'what?' (description), 'why?' (explanation), 'so what?' (synthesis), and 'now what?' (action). Open questions are asked of the storyteller by other members of the group (about six people) and this generates dialogue, but with a particular set of objectives in mind: to move from personal experience to more generalised knowledge (insights) and action. The whole process, once the story has been written, should take about 60-90 minutes. A skilled facilitator is central to this method.
  • You will need paper, pens, coloured cardboard, felt-tip pens.
  • The storyteller has to spend time writing their story before the session starts. The story is based around their experience of a particular issue/theme; examples should include a description of the event and their feelings about what happened and how it affected them.

Facilitating the Session

  • Introduction: the facilitator should spend some time explaining the process to the group and providing everyone with paper and pens. The facilitator must also keep a check on the timing of the different stages and move the group on appropriately.
  • The story (5-10 minutes): the storyteller tells their story. It is important for listeners to listen without interrupting, to note down details of the story and ideas for questions, and to respect confidentiality.
  • Reflection circle (10 minutes): listeners then quickly jot down their immediate reflections on the story: how is this story also my story? How similar or different is the story from my experience? Then they share their reflections within the group, one at a time with no interruptions (people can opt to pass).
  • Structured dialogue (25-45 minutes): This is not an interrogation of the storyteller and it is important to respect different views and to use active listening skills. Several people in the group should be asked to make notes of additional information gained during this dialogue. This part of the process is based around four types of question:
    • 'What?' – description questions (What were the problems, issues or needs? Who identified them? How did they arise? What did you do? What were the successes and difficulties? How did it turn out?)
    • 'Why?' – explanation questions (Why do you think it happened? Why did you/they react as you/they did? Why did you do what you did (the strategies or actions)? Why do you think it worked or didn't work?)
    • 'So what?' – synthesis questions (What have we learned? What remains confusing? How did people or relationships change? What unexpected outcomes occurred?)
    • 'Now what?' – action questions (What will we do differently next time? What will be our next set of actions? What are the key lessons? What power do we have to do things more effectively in the future and how can we increase this power?)
  • Review story records (5 minutes): each person shares their notes with the group. If only one story is used, for example in problem solving, generating a written record of the dialogue may not be important; a discussion around the notes followed by more dialogue around the story may be enough. In other situations however, for example in research or planning, recording insights for further reflection is very important. In these uses, the group will be listening to and discussing two or more stories on the same theme in order to see which insights are similar or different, and creating insight cards.
  • Create insight cards (15-20 minutes): the group creates two to four insight cards for each of the four types of question, or about eight to sixteen cards altogether. This is not a fixed number, and some questions will produce more insights than others. Insights could include useful lessons/tips or questions/challenges that still remain: the main thing is that they represent something important and worth sharing with others outside the story group. Each insight is written on a separate piece of coloured card and should include enough detail to be understandable to people outside the group. The insight cards from each story group can then be arranged into common themes.

Immediately after the Session

  • Ensure that insight cards are collected and common themes recorded so that a feedback report can be prepared.


  • Storytelling is an empowering process which values the unique personal experience of members of a community. It can yield a wealth of local expertise and information which can then be taken forward and used to challenge issues about which communities feel strongly.
  • It is an especially powerful tool when several stories around the same theme are told by members of a community. In this way the insights generated can share much in common and produce a practical action plan to which the whole organisation/community can commit.


  • Although the method should take 60-90 minutes altogether, it may take longer than this if sensitive issues are raised which the group finds more difficult to discuss.
  • The storytelling process may appeal more strongly to women than to men.


  • Staff time for planning and facilitation, or use of an external facilitator
  • Venue and catering
  • Stationery
  • Reimbursement of out-of-pocket expenses of lay participants.

Top Tips

  • The storytelling method involves considerable commitment from all those taking part, especially the storyteller, and appropriate sensitivity must be used.
  • It is essential to maintain confidentiality since, without this, storytellers may be unwilling to reveal in enough detail the nature of their experience.

Sources and Further Information

Some of this information was first published by the Link opens in a new windowEvaluation Trust

  • Labonte, R. and Feather, J. (1996) Handbook on Using Stories in Health Promotion. Ottawa: Health Canada
  • NHSScotland (2008) "Are You Listening? Stories about stigma, discrimination and reslience towards mental health problems among black and minority ethnic communities in Scotland" - Link opens in a new windowNHS Health Scotland