Unleashing Communication: Story Collage

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After a day of running a grueling communications workshop, I went back to my hotel room feeling sad. The participants were struggling and I knew I had to try something different. I was desperately trying to get people to share their experiences with one another, but no one was speaking up. People were complaining, “We have no stories to tell.”  Even worse, the few stories that had been shared were random and unconnected to each other and not very cogent to the themes of the workshop. Exhausted, I slumped into my chair. “People are walking treasure chests of stories,” I thought to myself. “How can I help them discover their stories and seethe relationships between them?” I sat down with my ever-handy composition book and began to doodle. That afternoon I created a tool called Story Collage™for facilitating story brainstorming and reflection.


  1. Help people discover and organize their stories.
  2. Reflect on stories and look for relationships between them
  3. Promote dialogue, sharing, and learning from each other’s stories.


  • Blank Story Collage™ handout•Sample Story Collage™ handout


  • Distribute a copy of the blank Story Collage™ handout as well as a sample filled-in form to each participant
  • Provide a topic for the Story Collage™. This will serve as the Story Circle
  • Instruct people to jot down short descriptions of their stories and other words they associate with the story that jar their recall of it. These short descriptions are referred to as Story Hubs
  • Guide people to look at all their Story Hubs and build an index of keywords that characterize the stories
  • Have people share their Story Collage™ with each other. Ask them to explore how their Story Collage™ relate to one another
  • Debrief the activity


  • Try this activity with small groups instead of individuals. This is a great way to get a heterogeneous group of people to learn from each other’s’ experiences and perspectives. For example, I have divided participants into groups of managers and employees.
  • Facilitate a group discussion to decide the topic for a Story Collage™.
  • Share a personal Story Collage™ with the group as an example. Alternatively, feel free to use the samples provided on the CD-ROM accompanying this book.
  • Have a group discuss a manager’s or leader’s Story Collage™. Use the manager’s collage to elicit stories from participants.
  • Assign Story Collage™ as pre-work or homework.
  • Create the Story Collage™ on butcher block paper and have participants take a tour around the room to share short dialogues about each other’s stories.
  • Shorten or lengthen the time of the activity.
  • Ask people to do a Story Collage™ before a major group discussion in which you hope to get people to share their personal experiences. This is a great way to help people collect their thoughts.
  • Use Story Collages™ instead of a concept map (e.g., Mind Map) to help people prepare a written or oral presentation.


  • People index their stories in different ways. Be sure the topic for the Story Collage™ is broad enough that it triggers stories for them. A short phrase versus a single word will yield a richer collection of experiences. For example, if I want people to recount their experiences after a multi-day sales meeting, I might use a phrase like, “Significant conversations that stick out in my mind from the last few days,” for my Story Circle. This phrase will be more effective than, “My sales meeting experience.”
  • Invite people to suggest topics. You can use a variety of facilitation techniques to do this. For example, you might have everyone write two or three short phrases. List all of the topics and look for ones that naturally group. Then take proposals from the group as to which one or ones they want to work on. If you are having difficulty getting the group to agree on one topic, then take a vote and select the top two or three.
  • Try playing some quiet, relaxing instrumental music in the background while people work.


  • When debriefing the activity, start with some process-related questions, for example, “How did that go? What did you notice during the process? Were there any surprises? Did you find any part of this activity difficult?” These are just sample questions. There’s no need to ask all of them, but you do want to give people an opportunity to react to the process (positive, negative, and neutral) before diving into people’s stories and the connections and relationships be-tween them that they discovered. If ideas of how to improve the process emerge during the debriefing process, be sure to record them and if possible make a commitment to incorporate them the next time you run the activity.•Always try to get people to share other people’s stories. For example, if someone is describing an insight she had or a connection he discovered between his or her story and someone else’s, ask the person to recount the other person’s story. Be sure to check back with the original storyteller to get his or her perspective.
  • Did people remember new stories? Most of us are not in the habit of recalling our experiences as stories to share with others. Story Collage™ provides people with a guided process to discover their stories and see the connections between their stories and the stories of others. Encourage people to think about their stories and to be more mindful of sharing them with others.
  • How do the index of key words in the Story Collage™ relate to the stories? Do people have similar indices? Everyone unconsciously builds a unique index associated with their experiences. We do not think about how we are indexing experiences. We make the naïve assumption that others have indexed their experiences in a similar way. This creates breakdowns in communication and understanding. Stories help us bridge the gaps created by didactic modes of conversation. However, we need to be sensitive to the different ways we classify our experiences. I may not be able to recall an experience if you ask me to recall it by utilizing your schema. The richer your index, the easier it will before you to find a relevant experience to share or determine the best language for eliciting stories from others.
  • How does the index in the Story Collage™ help people reflect on their experiences? We are not computer databases; therefore, indexing single experiences is neither necessary nor desirable. Story Collage™ captures a collection of stories. The indexing process helps people to quickly begin thinking about the inter relationships between their stories. By indexing the collection of stories, it becomes easier to recall one or more of the stories in the future and see connections with stories from other areas of our lives and experience. The index also makes it easier for us to see parallel themes in other people’s stories.
  • Circulate in the room while people are working on their collages. Help people who seem to be struggling to find stories. Before breaking people into pairs or groups, make sure people have some stories to share. You don’t want to group two people together who have very few stories. At least one member of a pair or group should have a healthy number of stories to share.
  • If you are using this activity to help a group better understand its members and dynamics impacting it, visually capture the relationships between the Story Collage™. This can be done by drawing lines or by using string and push pins to connect story hubs between collages, drawing symbols, using colored sticky pads, creating summary lists, or any other visually summarizing strategy. This becomes a critical map and summary for the group that it can refer back to later.


  1. Incorporate Story Collage™ into business processes (e.g., performance re-views, after action reviews, employee orientations, product development, and marketing focus groups).
  2. Instill standard story sharing, dialogue, and reflection with groups.
  3. Harvest key stories to promote knowledge sharing.

Case Study

It was the end of the day and I picked up the phone to answer the sort of call I dread. One of my regular clients was frantic, “Hey, Terrence, I’ve got some serious issues going on here. My project team is falling apart. I’ve spent all day in meetings with folks trying to sort out a tangled mess of problems, but with no success. Everyone is up in arms. Lots of finger pointing going on, and I haven’t been able to get to the bottom of it. I’ve called an emergency meeting for tomorrow morning. I know you haven’t been involved with the project, but will you please come in and facilitate? There will be thirty people from three different functional areas. Can I count on you?”

Walking into a lion’s den is never my first choice, but this client was desperate. I mumbled into the receiver, “Okay, you can count on me.”

The next morning I walked into a board room teeming with emotions. With very little in the way of introduction, I pulled out a stack of blank Story Collage™ forms and broke the group into five teams of six, with two representatives from each functional area on each team. I instructed people to work in pairs from the same functional area and record their frustrating experiences to date on the project. I gave them about fifteen minutes to work.

Then I asked them to find some key words to characterize their collection of stories. Next I had the teams of six assemble to share their collages with each other and develop a summary. When I regrouped all of the teams, there was an amazing new energy in the room. People were bubbling over with ideas and insights. Misconceptions, untold stories, dependencies between people’s responsibilities, and unrealized hurt feelings all came rushing out in a stream of stories. The collages had helped people surface their emotions and assumptions in a safe and thorough fashion while simultaneously providing them opportunities to see the situation from very different perspectives. By the end of all the sharing, with no prompting on my part, people were ready to dive into a litany of recommendations.

This guest post was written by Terrence L. Gargiulo, MMHS and comes from the webinar, Unleashing Communication: Story-Based Strategies and Tools.

Author Bio: 

Terrence is the author of eight books several of which have been translated into Chinese, Korean, and Spanish. For his creative use of narrative, INC Magazine awarded Terrence their Marketing Master Award. His work as an internationally recognized organizational development consultant earned him the 2008 HR Leadership Award from the Asia Pacific HRM Congress for his ground breaking research on story-based communication skills.

Terrence wrote the libretto for his father’s opera Tryillias which was accepted for a nomination for the 2004 Pulitzer Prize in music. In 2009, Terrence and his sister Franca founded the Occhiata Foundation. The Occhiata Foundation brings arts engagement to schools through the multi-disciplinary prism of opera- http://www.occhiata.org.

Terrence is a frequent speaker at international and national conferences. Terrence enjoys scuba diving, cooking, singing, and the sport of fencing. He was Junior National Champion, member of three US Junior World Championship teams, NCAA All American and an alternate for the 1996 Olympics. He has appeared in interviews on FOX TV, Comcast Network and CNN radio.


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