Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Ask the storyteller: Oral storytelling in a technological age

A writer friend and I recently had a conversation about the importance of oral storytelling in the age of technology. It was a lively discussion and one I thought lent itself well to an #askthestoryteller column.

What follows is as much of a rant as an essay, with lots of different threads. I could have written an entire post out of just about any one (and probably will). I'd love to hear what you think, please comment below!

Humans are storytelling creatures. I start just about every class I teach with the comment that storytelling is arguably our oldest art form, that our brains quite literally evolved for storytelling.

We tell stories everyday, even if we also use technology to communicate every day. Whenever we interact face-to-face with another human being we are likely to tell a story. On a routine basis people say to me that storytelling is a dying art. I strenuously disagree; we still tell stories. We still need stories. Even if other media appear dominant, storytelling is as basic a part of being human as upright walking is. We're not going to stop telling stories any time soon.

There are numerous fMRI studies that demonstrate how active the brain is during storytelling as opposed to other methods of conveying information. The gist is that when we tell and listen to stories our brains are deeply engaged. In fact, the brain of the teller and the listener mirror one another; there is even some anticipatory effect in the listener's brain, so they are looking ahead in the story. Oral storytelling is as close to telepathy and precognition as anything we've scientifically observed. Because our brains are innately primed for heard story, storytelling evokes empathy and emotional resonance more immediately than any other way of conveying information. This means that we connect more to stories than to text messages, written language or videos. This alone reassures me that storytelling is going nowhere.

It's very easy to be distracted by technology. I am writing this essay on my computer, connected to the internet. My smart phone, which has more computing power than the Apollo missions to the moon, sits beside me. I want to stop writing to check Facebook or my email. I feel the pull. Yet I know this essay has meaning, so I keep writing.

We as performing artists have a responsibility to our audiences to help them remember their basic storytelling and listening selves, that there is meaning in story. When we ask them to set aside their technology for a few minutes to pay attention to the story, we give them a chance to reconnect to this ancient and powerful part of their brains.

I expect it has been a struggle to communicate across generations for as long as people have been communicating. I'm certain way back in history there were a bunch of people complaining about papyrus, that it would distract young people from learning the old ways. I'm certain the told stories of the ancient Egyptians were different from their written counterparts, just as the written versions of my stories are different from the spoken. But one supports the other. And frankly, one gives my words more reach than I could ever experience if I only told them. We can use these new technologies to gain audience, to share ideas and to deepen our understanding of the art. We as performing artists must adapt and change with our times as we keep this ancient art alive. The two can co-exist if we are willing to do the work.

It is normal and natural for new technologies to seem disruptive. But because storytelling is wired into our brains I don't think it will be replaced by any technology any time soon. It is our responsibility as performers (and therefore as teachers; audiences need to be taught how to listen, remember?) to help our audiences connect to themselves. I'm sure everyone reading this has experienced the storytelling trance, when listeners are enraptured. Give audiences a chance to get there. Invite them to take the time and listen.

With thanks to Doug Lipman for helping me think this through.

(c)2015 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

1 comment:

  1. Beautiful essay! Storytelling -- that most ancient of art forms -- is the antidote to the pervasive presence of glowing screens.


True Stories, Honest Lies by Laura S. Packer is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.
Based on a work at
Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at
Related Posts with Thumbnails