People choose a single story from their lives to share in three minutes. This is important because humans have a deep need to connect and belong

Group Size
  • Any Size
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  1. This is a simple, yet profound, exercise. Tell everyone that they have just three minutes to tell a single story from their life. It could be inspirational, touching, funny, surprising, or any other emotion.
  2. Those are all the instructions: People get to choose a single story from their lives; then they have 3 minutes to share that story with the rest of the group. Almost always this turns into an incredibly bonding and powerful experience. It leads to laughter, tears, hugs, empathy, and connection. Many participants have even called it a “magical” experience, and remember it years later.
  • You could do this in small groups of just 4 to 5 people. Or you could do this as an entire group if it is smaller than 20 people. People can volunteer to go in any order, but they all should participate.
  • It’s important to make sure that people keep the story to 3 minutes. We have done this activity dozens of times in many cultures and nations. It always seems to work, so long as you don’t let people drag their stories on and on. All too often, people are oblivious to time, and can tell a rambling 10-minute story if you let them. It’s hard to cut someone off, especially if they are telling something deeply emotional and powerful from their lives. So it’s a good idea to make sure that you are giving people signals for when they just have a minute left, and then signal when their time is out. Of course, you can be a bit flexible and let them have an extra 15 to 30 seconds, but it’s important to be respectful of everyone’s time.
  • The other caveat is to watch out for competing noise. For example, if you separate people into small groups to do this exercise, and all the groups are in different corners of a room, it can be very distracting. One group might be listening to an uproarious story, where everyone is laughing hysterically, while another group is trying to hear a deeply emotional story from someone who is soft-spoken. So if you divide people into small groups, just make sure that the acoustics are good, so people can hear each other.
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Ask the participants: Why does such a simple exercise work so well? It’s just about telling a story. Yet so often people try to tell stories in classes or at conferences, which end up boring their audiences and lulling them to sleep. What’s different about this activity? Why is it so powerful?

It’s partly because you are asking people to choose, from their entire lifetime, one story that they want to share. Therefore, it’s unlikely that the stories will be prosaic and dull; inevitably some participants are going to share something deeply meaningful. (Alternatively, those people who don’t want to disclose anything vulnerable often contribute something hilarious that provides comic relief in the midst of many emotional stories.) And the more that people share something deep, so too will others reciprocate.

This leads to another key for this exercise: the fact that people are willing to let themselves become vulnerable, which rarely happens in everyday conversation. Most daily conversations – even conversations with friends and close family members - are quite shallow and superficial. But vulnerability makes a huge difference.

One example of this comes from surprising research done by Harvard Business School professor Youngme Moon. She had computers ask people to disclose their biggest disappointments or times in the past when they had felt hurt. Most people refused to divulge much to the computer. Their answers were terse and unrevealing.

But then she had the computer start by “being vulnerable.” It would write: “There are times when this computer crashes for reasons that are not apparent to its user. It usually does this at the most inopportune time, causing great inconvenience to the user. What have you done in your life that you feel most guilty about?”

Remarkably, the students would reciprocate with the computer. Now that it had disclosed some “guilty” secrets of its own, people instinctively felt like they could confess their own sins and open their hearts. Mind you, everyone knew that this so-called self-disclosure was just coming from a programmed machine, with no live person communicating behind it! Still this is how powerful vulnerability is.

Of course, it’s important to point out that there are limits to vulnerability. If people disclose too much (or start out by being extremely vulnerable at the start of a conversation with a stranger), it freaks people out!


As writers Rom and Ori Brafman put it in their excellent book Click: The Forces Behind How We Fully Engage with People, Work, and Everything We Do:

Most of us think that when we make ourselves vulnerable we are putting ourselves in a susceptible, exposed, or subservient position. By revealing their inner fears and weaknesses, many feel they allow others to gain power or influence over them. But in terms of creating an instant connection, vulnerability and self-disclosure are, in fact, strengths. They accelerate our ability to connect with those around us… Allowing yourself to be vulnerable helps the other person to trust you, precisely because you are putting yourself at emotional, psychological, or physical risk. Other people tend to react by being more open and vulnerable themselves. The fact that both of you are letting down your guard helps to lay the groundwork for a faster, closer personal connection.


Transformative Action Institute

Additional Readings

McAdams, Dan P. (2013). The Redemptive Self: Stories Americans Live By. Oxford University Press.

Moon, Y. (2000) Intimate exchanges: Using computers to elicit self-disclosure from consumers. Journal of Consumer Research 26: 323-39.