For all the recent discussion on the virtues and vices of public deliberation, surprisingly little attention has been given to how deliberative procedures actually operate in different policy contexts. This article takes up this task with a specific focus on how deliberative designs such as citizens' juries and consensus conferences interface with their participatory context. The concept of the participatory storyline is developed to describe the competing narratives associated with a policy issue on who constitutes the public" and how "they" should be represented and involved in the policy process. An analysis of two Australian cases reveals how existing participatory storylines can productively or destructively influence deliberative forums. The empirical research suggests that a more productive deliberative procedure is one that supports or "speaks to" existing narratives on what constitutes public participation. Under these conditions key policy actors are more likely to engage in the deliberative process and endorse its outcomes. Some suggestions are provided for how practitioners can better anticipate the way a deliberative forum might interface with its participatory context.