Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Conference report, part two: Bubble up stories

This is the second in a series of blog posts about two conferences I attended this fall (NCDD and NYSDRA). I started by describing the Red-Blue Dictionary and the exercise I designed for it (which I call "Ground Truthing with Stories"). Now I'll talk about the exercise I designed for the first plenary session of the NCDD conference.

Day Two: Bubble up stories exercise

The goals of this exercise were: to get people sharing stories with each other; to demonstrate the benefits of story sharing; to collect some stories; and to motivate people to share more stories later in the conference. When the NCDD people told me that we'd have more than 300 people doing the exercise, and that it would be facilitated over a microphone on a podium, I realized we needed something very simple. So I went back to the staple exercise Neal Keller and I developed back in 2000, which I call "twice-told stories." It's my go-to recommendation for inexperienced or overwhelmed facilitators, because that's what we were when we developed it.

One thing people usually need at conferences and meetings is a little help reaching out to people they don't know already. The twice-told stories exercise doesn't have that in it, so I tweaked the exercise to work better in settings where it's necessary to shake things up a little. We ended up with a new exercise that does a bit more mixing of the story pot than the standard TTS exercise. I've called it the "bubble up stories" exercise, and it worked so well at the NCDD conference that we used it again at the NYSDRA conference a few weeks later.

The exercise assumes that people are already in groups of six to eight, sitting around tables, as at a conference or meeting. You start by asking the people at each table to place their first names in alphabetical order, then split the list in half. The first half of the group stays at the table, and the second half gets up and moves to the table with the next highest number (using giant table number sheets you placed on the tables before the exercise started). Once people have formed their new mixed groups, they split in half again, but in a way that's orthogonal to the original sorting. A geographical distinction, like whoever's closest to one wall of the room, is best.

Now you've got twice as many small groups as you have tables. For NCDD we had over 100 small groups; but you can do the exercise with as few as six. Each small group is now given the task to share stories around a topic (using questions you wrote beforehand), choosing one story to pass on, using a criterion you chose beforehand (I favor "choose the story everyone in the room most needs to hear"). This part is the same as in any twice-told stories exercise.

After stories are told and chosen, people return to their original tables. Then everyone retells the story their small group chose. Depending on how people's names work out, each table will have two (unlikely) or three (likely) or four (less likely) stories to retell. Some people retell stories they heard from other people. This is a good thing, because telling each other's stories is (within limits) a good way to connect.

So those stories get retold. Each table group is again tasked with choosing the one story everyone in the room most needs to hear. After they have chosen the story they want to retell, they turn over the sheet of paper with their table number on it to find a story form - a place to describe and name the story, along with some questions about it. Talking together to answer the questions helps people make sense of the story.

Finally, some number of groups (depending on how much time is left) tell their chosen story a third time to everyone in the room. After the exercise, you can pick up the story forms people filled out to learn more about the stories people chose.

I see this exercise as having four benefits:
  1. You can use it to collect stories. You can record only the stories people tell to the whole room, or you can record all the retellings at each table.
  2. You can use it to connect people, as an ice-breaker for a meeting.
  3. You can use it to demonstrate the value of story sharing to people you want to introduce to story work.
  4. You can use it to help people think together to make sense of a topic or a problem.
Instructions for the Bubble up Stories exercise are here. If you try it, please send me a note so I can keep improving it.

Next up: Sticker stories.

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