How to tell a ‘good’ story – a practical method for co-creating case study (Feb 2017)

‘How to tell a good story’ emphasises the dynamic, live and relevant quality of working with someone to create their story. This method is used to create a deeper and richer case study and a story about long-term change, the journey and where it might lead.

In this short article I want to share a practical method for co-creating case study. I prefer to use the term ‘story’ to emphasise the dynamic, live and relevant quality of working with someone to create their story. I use this method as a tool to learn about the impact or difference that a particular programme or course or activity has had on a person’s experience. For example, a young person on a leadership course might reflect on how they lacked confidence in the past but can now stand up in front of a group of peers; they may emphasise the importance of friendship and support from their peers and talk about the role of adults believing in them and encouraging them to take on new challenges.

The aim of the ‘How to tell a good story’ method is to:

  • Work with the person to tell their story – you become the facilitator of the story not the writer.
  • Create a story about long-term change – this could be the length of a programme but works best as follow-up 1-2 years later or longer.
  • Produce a deeper and richer case study that can be used more widely to communicate to future participants, to promote your programme, or to demonstrate impact on peoples’ experience.
  • Produce a record that gives value to a person’s experience, achievements and challenges.
  • Ensure a focus on impact, change, the journey, and where it might lead.

How to co-create your story

I have used the following method many times in different settings with participants working in pairs to create their story/s together, facilitating the telling of an individual story and as a training exercise. A surprise from using this method was that the people involved enjoyed the opportunity to reflect on and record their story. It seemed to give value to their experience to be listened to and to be recorded. It turned out to be a useful tool for reflecting on or reviewing experience.

Getting started

I like to work on a large sheet of paper of flip chart, use coloured pens and a collection of pictures. I divide the sheet into 4 quarters and use the time line headings below to label each box. It might be useful to link the boxes with arrows to show the time sequence. The questions are used to shape the story and to delve a bit deeper. You can design your own questions to fit with the purpose of the story.

Use a time line to structure or sequence the story

 In the beginning … Introduce your story – who is it about? Is there any background information that it would be useful to know? What was your starting point and/or motivation?

 Along the way … What did you actually do? What were the headline achievements? What were the challenges? How did you overcome the challenges?

In the end … What changed? What were the results? Were there any surprise benefits? Where are you now?

 And the moral of the story is … What can we learn from your story? What are the main messages?

Finally, think about a title for your ‘story’ that reflects what it is about. This will help to signpost the reader right from the outset.

Tip – You don’t have to stick to the time sequence. In fact, the people I have worked with move backwards and forwards between the boxes as they remember key points and as new learning and insights emerge. You can even start at the ‘end’ given that it is a reflective activity.

Enhance the story

Use description to tell the story – the details and facts for each of the boxes.

Use quotes to illuminate your story – from different perspectives and to capture meaningful moments. For example, what would I typically say at this point? What would my peers say? What would my boss say? If you can – go and ask them!

Use pictures as a way to express emotions, feelings and change. Get the person to choose a picture that captures their emotions and feelings at key moments. I use my own picture collection but I have also used photos that the person takes themselves. This can be more meaningful and relevant.

Take a photo, take your sheet away with you or turn the story into a more fully worked case study. The sort of record you want to make is linked to why and how you are using the method.

Ethical considerations

Finally, think about the ethics – it is important to respect the confidentiality of people who participate in this sort of exercise. Ensure that you have their permission especially if you want to showcase their story in the future. Check if they are happy to have their name included or if they would prefer to be anonymous. Robert Stake (2003) highlights the privileged position of the case study researcher or the practitioner using deep storytelling methods. He says: “Qualitative researchers are guests in the private spaces of the world. Their manners should be good and their code of ethics strict” (p154). He goes on to assert that it is important that practitioners go beyond standard ethics requirements. That they should maintain an active dialogue with the storytelling participants, providing feedback, and in particular “to listen well for signs of concern” (p154).

‘Maintaining active dialogue’ is a good note to finish on. It is the essence of ‘How to tell a ‘good’ story’ and works best when stories are co-created.


Stake, R.E. (1995). The Art of Case Study Research. London: Sage Publications.

Stake, R.E. (2003). Case Studies (134-164) in Denzin, N.K. &Lincoln, Y. (eds) (2003). Strategies of Qualitative Inquiry (2nd ed). London: Sage.