Pass a roll of toilet paper to each person in your group, asking them to tear off as much as they think they will need to use during the course of your session/program.
Once everyone has collected their share of the roll, announce that this task was, in fact, a sneaky way of inviting people to share more about themselves.
Instruct each person to share one piece of information about themselves for every single sheet (square) of toilet paper they are holding.
Invite people to take turns around the circle, or randomly when ready to share.
How To Play Narrative
Okay, admittedly, as soon as you read that toilet paper was involved, you probably thought one of three things – What the heck? This sounds interesting. Or, that’s icky. In some part, they are all true. Proceed with caution, and only if you can keep a straight face and are feeling adventurous.
Ideally, your group will be together for an extended period of time, ie at least an hour. This is important because the basic premise of this exercise (you could call it a stunt) relies heavily on the need for people to visit the bathroom or toilet at some point during your program, otherwise, it won’t work.
Start by holding a typical roll of toilet paper in your hand, and unroll a bunch of sheets and then tear it off.
Perhaps during this task explain to your group that, regrettably, you have been informed that the premises has run out of toilet paper, so it is necessary to ration the last remaining roll before new stock arrives.
Try your best to pull a straight face, lest the group cottons on to the fact that you are tricking them. The fact that you have unfurled a handful of sheets will add a little credibility (perhaps) to your story.
Then, hand the roll to the next person and ask them to roll off as much toilet paper as they think they’ll need over the course of the next X hours.
Expect a lot of incredulous looks at this stage, and a few side glances of embarrassment, ie it’s fascinating how much toilet paper some people think they need, or actually use!
Gradually, each person tears off as much toilet paper as they think they will need. Once the roll returns to you, deliver the big reveal.
That is, you must declare that you have told a fib and there is, in fact, no toilet paper shortage. Rather, it was all a sneaky ploy to invite people to share a few things about themselves.
Indeed, instruct each person (in turn around the circle, or randomly when ready) to share one piece of information about themselves for every single sheet (square) of toilet paper they are holding.
There will be cries of disbelief as much as embarrassment for the number of sheets they are now left holding and counting.
That way it ordinarily works, an individual will tear a sheet from the supply they are holding and share a little about themselves, and then tear another sheet and share some more, etc.
When all of the sharing is done, feel free to toss the sheets into the rubbish, or store in one’s pocket for later use. Waste not, want not.
Practical Leadership Tips
Naturally, if you think or expect that your group will go all weird if they started passing a roll of toilet paper around the group and tearing off sheets, then this exercise may not be for them. I say maybe because there are a couple of less-embarrassing options (see Variations tab) you could try that leverage the numbers without the guilt.
On occasions, there will be that one person who thinks that they can “keep it in” and therefore declare that they do not need to tear off any sheets. This may be true, but this is not the point of the exercise. If necessary, employ some further tactic to encourage this person to grab some toilet paper.
For groups that know each other pretty well, narrow the focus of your group’s conversation, eg best holiday you’ve ever taken and why, things you love about where you live, your strengths, etc.
The exercise gets its name from the concept of leading people astray, ie a wrong or bum steer. Which, as described above, is the precise tool I typically employ to introduce the exercise.
Boxes of individual sheets work just as well as the standard roll.
Coins In My Pocket: Same thing, different media. Instruct people to inspect their wallets and purses, and for every coin/note they are holding, they will be invited to share something about themselves.
Phone Number Digit: Same thing, again a different media. Ask people to consider the last digit of their phone number. If it’s a ‘4’ then they are invited to share four things about themselves, etc. For the record, a ‘0’ means a ten.
Tissues for Your Issue: Ask people to pull out as many facial tissues that they think they’ll need during X period of time. Admittedly, this exercise is a little wasteful but it is far less embarrassing than the original.
People Facts: For each sheet, instruct an individual to briefly write one fact or piece of information about themselves. Proceed as above (writing stuff down sometimes helps the thinking process) or use these records in another activity, eg Who Am I?
Open the Virtual Adaptation tab to learn how to present this activity online.
Note: Do not ask each person involved in your online meeting to grab their required number of sheets of toilet paper – the context just doesn’t make sense.
Do ask them to empty the contents of their wallet or purse, and for every single item, invite each person to share something about themselves.
For every letter in their first, last or full name, ask your participants to share one thing about themselves.
Hilarious get-to-know-you-more game for large groups.
Unique musical method to create random teams.
Useful Framing Ideas
Hey, I’m sorry to report, but we are about to run out of toilet paper, and this roll I am holding is the last one until more supplies arrive later this afternoon. To tide us over, I’d like us all to unfurl as much toilet paper as you think you’ll need until we can replenish supplies…
Reflection Tips & Strategies
Coupled with one or more reflection strategies, here are some sample questions you could use to process your group’s experience after playing this sensitive, yet fun game:
What were you thinking when the exercise was first introduced?
How did you feel rolling off your supply of toilet paper?
When the truth was revealed, what did you then think? How did this make you feel?
Where else in your life were you tricked into doing something? What was the impact or consequence of that experience?
The inspiration for Bum Steer was more than likely a crafty youth group leader in my younger years, but I cannot with certainty recall exactly who. What I can say with certainty is that, 40+ years later, it had an impact.