Anecdote circles

Posted by  Shawn Callahan —February 28, 2006
Filed in Business storytelling

Anecdote CircleAn anecdote circle resembles a focus group except it’s designed to elicit people’s stories—their real life experiences—rather than opinions.

The role of the anecdote facilitator is to ask very few, open questions which helps the participants recount real events. The facilitator spends most of their time listening and whenever someone offers an opinion they ask for an example. Sharon Darwent (a colleague at the IBM Cynefin Centre) taught me how to conduct anecdote circles and her simple advice was: “relish silence and ask for examples.” It’s put me in good stead ever since.

We find you can run anecdote circles with between 4–12 people with 6–8 being the ideal number. An anecdote circle typically runs for 60–90 minutes or whenever the group runs our of energy. The longest anecdote circle I’ve run lasted 2.5 hours—it was exhausting.

Let me know if you would like to know anything else about this approach to collecting narrative.

About  Shawn Callahan

Shawn, author of Putting Stories to Work, is one the world's leading business storytelling consultants. He helps executive teams find and tell the story of their strategy. When he is not working on strategy communication, Shawn is helping leaders find and tell business stories to engage, to influence and to inspire. Shawn works with Global 1000 companies including Shell, IBM, SAP, Bayer, Microsoft & Danone. Connect with Shawn on:

3 Responses to “Anecdote circles”

  1. Shawn Callahan Says:

    Having some problems with comments this week so here is a comment from Dorine Ruter
    Hi Shawn, thanks for the post. I do have some questions.
    From previous posts on this website I read that one of the ideas of having an anecdote circle is to discover patterns. Do you feel discovering these patterns (always/sometimes/when?) should be a group process? If in a group, at what point and how does the group try to analyse their stories and synthesize some sort of output? If not, how are insights of these patterns brought back into the group?
    Hopefully you can tell me some more about this part of the approach or point to some previous posts here or other resources.
    Dorine Ruter

  2. Shawn Callahan Says:

    Hi Dorine, yes we use a group process to make sense of the narrative. It’s typically done as a workshop after all the anecdote circles are complete (we call collection, discovery phase). The entire process we use is described in our white paper: Avoiding Change Management Failure using Narrative. Here’s the link:
    Have a read and happy to answer more questions on the detail.

  3. SeanTellsDotCom Says:

    Interesting article, but it’s my experience that these types of circles are generally filled with what management wants to hear vs. what really needs to be said. Teaching organizational storytelling as an ongoing process, with techniques for past and present as-they-happen memories, for the collection of stories, is a way to sustain real growth and genuine, mode-changing narrative gathering. It’s hard. It takes time. For companies that want a gimmick, storytelling is not for them.
    Group patterns: Absolutely should be discovered in the organic process. One of the issues in using narrative/storytelling in companies is that it reveals both the good and the bad of an organization. Patterns that are gathered from the data vs. gathered from the people who shared that data are usually bent to please the people paying the bill. Storytelling is messy and yet is probably the most effective route to genuine change within an organization.

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