Story Circle as a Collaborative Evaluation Method

Story Circles—generative, practicable, rigorous

Using Story as Collaborative Evaluation highlights using a storytelling methodology as one way community members can evaluate the impact of development projects. Instead of setting outcomes to measure against, the communities we work with can identify outcomes for themselves by telling us a story about the project. What changed for them? How did it happen? Why is it important? As a development practitioner / storyworker – I’ve found facilitating story circles (and other storywork methodologies) to be a creative and participative process, which is both meaningful and enjoyable. 

It has shifted evaluation from a necessary add-on to a central part of my work. Both the stories, and the learning that has emerged from them, have been rich and insightful. They have led me to think deeply about the way I work. 

Story circles 

A Story Circle is a group of people sitting in a circle, telling personal stories, led by a Story Circle facilitator. Each Story Circle is different according to its purpose. 

Story circles as a collaborative evaluation process offers a step up from the previous form filling and interview-based approach: 

  • It gives a better understanding of the very personalised, diverse outcomes that community members experience. 
  • It enables community members to have a say in defining what impacts they felt. 
  • It engages more people in understanding and learning from impact. 
  • It offered a more holistic approach to understanding impact and how it is achieved. 
  • It makes evaluation an enjoyable, creative, and meaningful experience. 

Story Circle facilitators / development practitioner

The following characteristics important for the story facilitator / development practitioner:

  • Being a good listener – giving people (esp. under-represented community members) space to think and speak, and to actively listen to what they have to say. 
  • Being genuinely interested in people, their communities, and their stories. 
  • Being able to put people at ease, build relationships, and support people – if people are expected to speak openly about personal experiences of significance to them, people need to feel comfortable, and that they can trust the person listening. 
  • Confident enough to guide a story circle– this means being able to ensure safety and boundaries are met – and if people cross speak or move beyond the purpose of the story circle – the story circle facilitator can guide the participants back – letting people speak freely without losing sight of the guiding questions. 
  • Someone the community participants can relate to – it helps to first identify relevant stakeholders / community participants within community development projects and then consider who would be best placed to collect their evaluation stories. It’s important to bear in mind existing roles and relationships and how they might impact upon community participants ability to speak openly and freely. 

Identifying and preparing community members / participants

For the purposes of using story-circles as evaluation methodology, you may want to hear the stories from staff, volunteers, community members and external community stakeholders involved in the project or area of focus. In projects, it is important to include diverse perspectives and voices on the activity being evaluated. However, who the participants / storytellers are should be guided by what the different stakeholders want to learn about the project, including the requirements you may need for funding – but also what the community you are working with wants to know.  Especially the under-represented community members / crisis affected community members’ want to learn about the project. It is important to consider, whose evaluation stories need to be told, and who wants to share their evaluation story. 

A meeting should be arranged with those interested in taking part to discuss story circles for collaborative evaluation and what it entails. Ideally, this conversation should be led by someone that the project community members are comfortable and familiar with, and who understands the project. As part of this conversation, the facilitator should explain: 

  • What a story circle is and why we use it.
  • What telling their evaluation story will entail.
  • What will happen to the stories once collected. 
  • If different story circles need to be organised for different stakeholders especially if there are power differences between different stakeholders or some people may not feel comfortable sharing stories with stakeholders (example, LGBTIQ+ people and government or carers and people with disabilities, husbands and wives, youth, and their parents). (This can be collaboratively decided with the community you are working with) 
  • Permission and confidentiality. 

It is important within this to emphasise the following key things: 

  • The story circle community participants need to treat anything shared as confidential.
  • The community participants are in control of what they want to share – they do not have to speak about anything they do not want to.
  • Stories can be made anonymous – names and identifying details can be changed.

However, it is worth bearing in mind that sometimes community participants may be identifiable from the stories by those that know them well.

  • We only share the story once we have confirmation that the community participants are happy for us to do so.
  • There is no need to prepare a story in advance – the story facilitators will help guide the topics of the story circle for evaluation – and it may flow in unexpected ways due to the participants. 
  • It doesn’t matter if the community participants jumps about, stops and starts, or goes on tangents – often this is what leads to the best stories!
  • Allow sufficient time – everybody’s story is different in length, and it is better not to be rushed and to have the time available – however, you can specify beforehand the boundaries around time. 


All community participants must sign a permissions form in advance, which outlines the intention of the project activity, what will happen to the stories, and how they will be used. It should ask people whether they wish to be named or remain anonymous, and if they do wish to be named how they would like to be referred to. It should also clarify that they will have the opportunity to read and amend their story once edited, and that it will not be shared until they have confirmed they are happy for this to happen. 

It is also important they are made aware of the policy around managing their data – for instance, how long will the recording and their information be kept for, when will it be deleted, how will it be stored, and who will see it. 

The story circle evaluation session itself should feel informal, equal, and conversational, and community participants and story facilitator/s should be made to feel comfortable, both physically and emotionally, by a member of the project team. 


Storytelling should take place in a private space to ensure confidentiality and good audio- recording quality. The space itself should be as warm and welcoming as possible. It’s important to take into consideration the connotations of the space – is it familiar, and might that be a help or a hindrance? It’s also important to make sure that both the community participants and story facilitator/s are physically comfortable – are the chairs comfortable and are there any special adaptions certain community members / story facilitators might need? 


It’s important that both community participants and story facilitator/s feel supported before, during and after the story circle for evaluation session. 

It’s important to think in advance about how you will accommodate different support needs so that the opportunity to tell an evaluation story is inclusive and accessible to as many people as possible. For instance, when working with people who speak English as a second language, where possible it can help to have the option for them to tell their story in their first language, to bring a translator, or to have the guiding evaluation questions written down for them to read. 

When the community participants arrive, they should be welcomed and introduced. Throughout the session, there should be a way of them contacting the person co-ordinating the story circle session, and it should be made clear that they can take a break or pause at any point. 

The process of telling or listening to an evaluation story can be physically and emotionally draining and can sometimes involve discussing sensitive or difficult matters. (Depending on the community development project and the experiences of the project participants. It is important that there is someone available for both the story facilitator and community participants to speak to after the session, and that they can debrief, or that there are support service contact details provided. In some cases, there may not be relevant support people (for example, for people with diverse Sexual Orientations, Gender Identities, Expressions and Sex Characteristics in some countries or regional, rural, and remote locations) and therefore, there needs to be consideration on how to support people in this situation.

What makes a good story? 

The stories begin as conversations – informal, often circuitous, and full of lived detail and idiosyncratic voice. It is the conversational nature of storytelling that allows the community participants to create meaning and significance, and that gives the stories, in the end, their power. 

There are 4 key questions, which frame the conversation between community participants and the story circle facilitator: 

1. What did they do in relation to the project?
2. What changed for them because of their experience?
3. Why was that change important for them? 

4. What were the main things about their experience that made this change happen? 

We want people’s responses to these questions and the conversations which surround them to be: 

• Personal – it should be their own experience and opinions, not the change they see in others.

• Detailed – we want to hear the specifics and descriptions of people’s experiences. 

• Focussed – we want to hear about change they feel is attributed, at least in part, to the project being evaluated. 

• Strengths based – the emphasis is not on what people were before, but on change and why it’s happened. 

Story Circles should: 

  • Be preceded by an informal time to socialize. (For example, a shared community dinner.) 
  • Take place in a quiet space with good acoustics where interruptions are unlikely to occur. 
  • Consist of from 5 to 15 people sitting in a circle without notepads, mobile phones, etc., and in such a manner that each participant has a good view of every other participant. 
  • Have one trained facilitator who begins, oversees, and ends the story circle. 
  • Have a stated time-period in which the story circle will take place. 
  • Have a purpose articulated by the project team and agreed to by the participants. (Hopefully the project is also designed, implemented, and evaluated with a diverse team including those from the community that the project is targeting) 
  • Allow for silences between stories. 
  • Be as much about listening as about telling. 

Story Circles should not: 

  • Primarily serve the agenda of any one participant. 
  • Give importance to one story, or one type of story, over another. 

The facilitator’s role: 

  • Be clear about the purpose of the story circle, or determine with the group, the theme for the circle. The theme must complement the story circle’s purpose. 
  • Introduce him / her / them-self, describe the circle’s purpose and theme, and state the time the Story Circle will end. 
  • Share the rules of the Story Circle and answer participants’ questions about them. 
  • Emphasize the idea that listening to the stories of others is as important as telling your own story, noting that deep listening can foster a meditative quality in the circle. 
  • Discourage participants from thinking too much about what they will say when it is their turn, asking them to trust that their story will come from their listening to the stories of the others. 
  • Tell the group how long the circle will last and ask participants to pace the length of their stories to the time available, taking into consideration the number of participants. For example, if there are 12 people in the story circle and 60 minutes for storytelling, each story should be approximately 5 minutes in length. 
  • Announce the manner in which the facilitator will politely indicate to a story circle participant that he /she/ they have passed the time limit and needs to wrap-up the story. 
  • After the first story, go around the circle clockwise or counter-clockwise, with each person telling or passing when it is their turn. The rotation continues until everyone has told a story. 
  • Reserve time after the telling for participants to reflect on what has just transpired by asking everyone for their observations and comments. 
  • End the Story Circle on time. 
  • Participants often want to talk personally to each other after the Circle breaks up, so the facilitator should ensure space is available for this purpose. 

Story Circle rules: 

  • There is only one-story circle facilitator. 
  • There are no observers – only participants. 
  • The Story Circle facilitator is also a participant and must tell his or her story as well. 
  • Participants speak only when it is their turn.
  • The order of telling is either clockwise or counter clockwise from the first story sharer. When it comes to one’s turn, the person decides the timing of when to speak, and may decide to pass, knowing their turn will come around again. 
  • After everyone in the story circle has had the opportunity to speak or pass, the rotation begins again for those who have passed. 
  • Listening deeply is the most important part of the story circle experience.
  • Participants should not distract themselves by thinking ahead about what story they will tell. – rather, participants should listen to the stories told, and, when it is their turn, tell a story brought to mind by the previous stories, or pass. 
  • Participants and the facilitator never argue with or debate another participant’s story. 
  • Participants and the facilitator never comment upon another participant’s story other than to say, when it is their turn, “That story reminds me of . . .” 
  • There is no cross-talk in a story circle and all responses to a particular story wait their turn and are in story form. 
  • Story Circles are never tape recorded or videotaped without the participants’ expressed permission. 
  • If the stories in a story circle might be used to inform the development of a project activity, all participants must understand this and give their permission. 

When a Story Circle should be stopped by the facilitator: 

It is not unusual for painful stories to emerge in a story circle. The story facilitator must exercise judgment about when to continue a story circle and when to stop it. Story circle facilitators should not try to serve as therapists, social workers, or doctors (even if these are their professional occupations), because participants did not come to the circle to receive these services. The facilitator can: 

  • Call for a break and talk individually with the distressed person. 
    • Refer the distressed person to the proper professional. 
    • Resume or reschedule the story circle. 


What happens if no one in the circle wants to tell the first story? 

The facilitator should have told participants that periods of silence are not a bad thing, and that the circle will just wait as long as it takes for someone to be moved to tell a story. 

Are there forms other than story for which the circle method can be effectively used? 

Yes. Story circles can be used in research, project design, periodic project check-ins and many other uses. Story circles using the same facilitation guidelines are practical. 

If doing an analysis circle for a defined purpose, the guideline of limited time and building on the previous statement is helpful. 

Are observers ever allowed? 

No. Everyone in the room must be part of the circle. 

What is the rule of thumb to decide whether or not a circle will be recorded? 

Everyone in the circle must agree that the session will be recorded and be informed of how the recording will be used. When working with under-represented communities, consent forms should be used. It also depends on the purpose of the story circle.

What if someone arrives after the circle has commenced? 

They may not join the circle. This should be made clear prior to scheduling the circle. 

What do I do if people insist on cross-talk (talking out of turn) during the circle? 

The facilitator should tell participants ahead of time what she will do if there is cross- talk – perhaps a good-natured warning sound like “Ah, ah, ah.”  Although it is extremely rare, if someone refuses to wait until their turn, despite being asked to do so, the facilitator should ask the individual to leave the circle. 

What if a participant doesn’t tell a single story during the entire circle? 

It’s unusual, but it’s ok. As long as they are present and focused.