Anecdote circles

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List of methods / Narrative methods

An anecdote circle is a collective process (facilitated either physical or virtually) whose purpose is to generate and collect anecdotes about some issue or topic. Usually the anecdotes gathered will be used later in some sort of sense-making process, and may be placed in a narrative database for sense-making and as a knowledge repository.

Preparation

Clear Ground Rules: Participants may not have experienced an anecdote circle before. Their expectations should be managed. Establish the ground rules of the workshop up front, ensure you provide the reasons for conducting the anecdote circle, the context of the associated project, basic definitions such as what we mean by Anecdotes.

Equipment and setup: Provide them with equipment, hexagons and a digital recorder for each group. Share up front the prompting questions you'd like them to consider.

Participant selection guidelines: An anecdote circle should be populated by people who have some kind of shared experience and who can reflect together on some issue or topic or history. There should also be some diversity within the group, who have different perspectives, experiences and insights to share. Participants are usually selected and invited to the workshop, based on some initial preparation by the core team who do some thinking around how to introduce diversity into the session.

Workflow

Probably the most important thing about the anecdote circle is that people should not be aware of a lot of structure or "objectives" in what they are doing. They should mostly think they are having an interesting time reminiscing together.


STAGE INSTRUCTION COMMENTARY & TIPS
Frame the request carefully: Whether you get stories or not depends on how you frame the things you ask people to do. Naturally occurring storytelling lives in a habitat of conversation. It is not a "thing" you ask for but an emergent property of discourse. Whether you get emergence or "things" will depend entirely on how you present the anecdote circle. Watch your language. Never "ask" for a story. Never tell people "we want your stories" or in any way refer to a story as a thing. If you do that, you will tap into a lot of misperceptions about what a "story" or an "anecdote" is, including a novel, a movie, a comedy routine. What you want people to understand is that you want them to talk together about the past, about times and events in the past, about things that happened to them, about their experiences. If that happens, there will be much better anecdotes produced than if people believe they are "producing" anything. Focus on events - it can be as simple as making sure to ask "was there a time you felt proud" rather than "what were your accomplishments". Always frame your introductions to natural storytelling in terms of events - times, moments, experiences, instances, things that happened, and so on. Avoid mentioning things that don't have a time element, like conditions, beliefs, rules, expectations, memory, and so on.
You want to hear about people's real experiences, not what they believe they should be saying, or the company line, or what they heard on the news. You need to cut through all that to get to what has actually happened to them, because that is where the real potential of narrative disclosure is realized. In order to achieve this, you will need to convince people that you really do want to know what their experiences have been and that their perspectives are valuable to you. You can do that in how you talk about what the anecdote circle is about and why you need the perspectives the people in it have to offer. Your reasons for this will of course differ based on why you are holding the anecdote circle; but in nearly every case you will be truthfully able to say that you are after something deeper and more meaningful and significant than what can be found out by reading official stories or news stories or instruction manuals, something that only the people in the room know about. Knowing that what they will be talking about will be valuable will help people to volunteer what they know.
Capturing the anecdotes: There are many ways to collect anecdotes in an anecdote circle. The most common technique is to record each small-group conversation in audio (not video, as people tend to be more self-conscious) and have the tapes transcribed for use in a narrative database. Ask participants to write down anecdote titles on hexagons as they go, as these form a helpful guide to the audio recordings as well as a useful immediate input into any sense-making exercises that come afterwards – such as deriving archetypes or creating a Cynefin® framework populated with anecdote turning points. At one extreme, you need not capture any anecdotes if the purpose of the circle is to lead in to another sense-making exercise and not to populate a narrative database. At the other extreme, you may want to record every anecdote that is told. The best method is to ritualize capture. Here a digital tape recorder is used, and when the circle decide that an anecdote should be used, the teller leaves the circle to speak and index their anecdote. This way permission is granted, material recorded is kept to the minimum. You can also have scribes sit with each group and write down anecdotes as they are told; this method is quick because it doesn't require transcription, but it doesn't result in verbatim stories.

Do's and Don'ts

  • Mix up the techniques so that people can find things they like doing. It's fine to have different groups doing different exercises at the same time. If a technique isn't working for one group (say they can't think of any way to shift the setting, or they won't dit), try another one. What you are trying to do above all is facilitate the emergence of natural storytelling in engaged energetic conversation, which will lead to the collection of a diverse body of meaningful anecdotes.
  • People should be talking about best and worst moments, not about everyday things. What you are looking for is the boundaries of experience, not the midpoint. You are not interested in what a "typical day at the office" is like; you are interested in the best and worst days in a career spanning forty years. And importantly, these extremes must include the negative as well as the positive. It is much easier to get "success stories" out of people than it is to get stories of failure and disappointment; but it is the latter that is usually more fruitful.
  • People should be recounting things that happened, not lecturing or giving opinions or complaining. You are looking for stories, which are a qualitatively different type of data than any other kind of statement. All stories describe events; if nothing happens, it is not a story – it may rather be an opinion, a statement, a fact or an instruction.
  • In every situation there will be some issues that people are going to be at least a little passionate about. If that isn't happening you haven't found the issues yet. Sometimes it takes a while for people to open up and start talking about what really matters to them. You need to find a balance between using techniques that help move this along and just having patience and letting things take time. You can help people too much. Sometimes you will get all of your useful anecdotes in the last quarter of the anecdote circle's time. That's fine, as long as it happens.
  • Watch for especially active people dominating groups. You want everyone in the anecdote circle to tell at least some stories to get maximum diversity. Don't say anything to people who are dominating the storytelling, just pull them aside and find something you need them to do. Deriving archetypes is a very good thing to ask dominating people to do, since they will likely throw a lot of energy into that task.

Virtual running

Anecdote circles can be run using virtual communication and collaboration tools to host the conversation, capture hexies and record the selected anecdotes.

References

Link to other articles on this wiki if they are relevant.

Articles

A story about the use of anecdote circles - Using Stories to Increase Sales at Pfizer

Blog posts

Link with commentary

Cases

Link to case articles here or third party material