Insights through letting people tell stories

In the description of their narrative based methods Cognitive Edge describe important qualities of moderating a group session. They apply these rules to anecdote gathering techniques. (link to document here)
But I believe these STORY ELICITATION TECHNIQUES & general rules for moderators are useful far beyond that:


"Extremes. 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.

Events. 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. This is a major obstacle and one that can produce bountiful amounts of opinions, statements, facts, and instructions - but no stories. Whether you get stories or not depends on how you frame the things you ask people to do. 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.

Emotions. 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.

Experiences. 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. The several techniques for fictional exploration described below can help with this obstacle. But outside of any technique, you also 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 signficant 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.

Exchanges. 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, a lie. You don't want people to get the idea that you want them to perform or make things up for the sake of the things themselves, because the focus will shift from process to product (and thereby destroy the product). 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."