We all tell stories every day. It seems simple enough, but soon you realize that there is a lot to learn and know about it.
As a professional storyteller, I get asked many questions about oral storytelling. Here are the answers to a lot of them. I hesitated in including some of these questions because there is a bit of overlap, but I realized that it is better to say something twice than not at all.
1. Why is oral storytelling important?
Oral storytelling has been around for a long time. When humans started to share their stories, they became more efficient in their daily life. They could quickly learn from each other. Their stories also contributed to a shared culture and community that transcended generations.
Today, many cultures in the world still strongly rely on oral storytelling. And many people in other cultures do not like to read or write but are more verbally oriented. They prefer to speak and listen to stories.
And finally, when children grow up, they first learn to listen and speak. These language skills are foundational for learning to read and write.
2. Is oral storytelling an art or a craft?
It is both an art and a craft.
Oral storytelling is an art because it is a creative activity that expresses imaginative and technical skills, producing the actual storytelling event.
Oral storytelling is a craft because it consists of skills that you can learn and grow in, and it has a clear end product: the actual telling of the story.
3. What is the correct definition of oral storytelling?
A correct definition is the one given by the National Storytelling Network, and explained further on their website:
Storytelling is the interactive art of using words and actions to reveal the elements and images of a story while encouraging the listener’s imagination.National Storyteller Network (Source: https://storynet.org/what-is-storytelling/)
It is important to note that there is no single correct definition, but there is widespread agreement about the elements that make up oral storytelling.
4. Why is traditional storytelling called the oral tradition?
It is called the oral tradition because stories in traditional storytelling were passed orally by somebody telling the story and somebody listening to that same story.
Nowadays, many things are considered ‘storytelling,’ but traditional storytelling was the only storytelling that existed not so long ago.
5. What are the earliest stories?
Some of the earliest stories are:
- The Sumerian epic of Gilgamesj
- The Aboriginal Dreamtime stories
- The Indian epics Mahabharata and Ramayana
6. How many types of stories are there in the world?
Some people argue that there are 6, 7, or 36 types of stories in the world. However, the truth is that nobody knows how many types of stories there are in the world. Contrary to popular opinion, it is not easy to categorize them neatly into several types of stories.
💡 It is better to stay away from such oversimplifications.
7. What are some well known tales that were originally told orally?
Basically, all more than 500 years old stories were initially told orally. So it is easy to come up with examples:
- stories from the different religions: like bible stories
- folktales, fairy tales, legends and myths that were not composed by one writer
- historical stories: like the tales about the Egyptians, the Romans, etc.
8. What are oral stories and why were they told in the Middle Ages?
Oral stories are stories that were mainly told orally, without being accessible in writing for many people. Few people could read and write in the Middle Ages, so oral stories were the primary way stories got told.
9. How do you pick the right story to tell?
Choose a story you can connect to emotionally. But, equally important, this story needs to have meaning for your listeners. So consider what’s in there for them. Thirdly, the event where you tell the story will have requirements, like the time of telling, a theme, etc.
💡 Picking the right story is an essential skill that you will become better at over time.
10. What are good places for storytelling?
Good places for storytelling offer the listeners a place to focus on the storyteller without many distractions.
Examples of good places for storytelling are:
- around a campfire
- in a theater
- in a historical location (like a castle)
- in the sheltered outdoors (like a forest)
11. Where can I watch oral storytelling?
The best place to watch oral storytelling is at a local event or festival. You can find these by a simple google search or in the schedule of your local storytelling organization.
You can watch seven videos of oral storytelling examples here:
12. How do I get started with oral storytelling?
The best way to get started with oral storytelling is by beginning to tell stories. Depending on your opportunities, you can tell stories to one listener or more. The second best way to get started is to follow a storytelling course and practice telling your stories afterward.
Here you can read how to tell your first fairy tale:
13. Why do people fall asleep during a story?
When you tell a story, people relax into a slight trance state. Sometimes they become so relaxed that they fall asleep, especially when the story’s dynamic stays mostly the same.
14. Why is oral storytelling boring on video?
Storytelling relies on you visualizing the story in your imagination. However, when you watch a video, you expect the images of the story to be supplied to you. Without your own images, a video of a storyteller is no more than a talking head: it becomes boring after a few minutes.
Another reason oral storytelling becomes boring on video is that the interaction between teller and listeners is an essential part of the storytelling event. Without this interaction, you become a spectator instead of a part of the storytelling event.
💡 I have experienced storytellers who can keep me spellbound in a live performance for an hour. However, I cannot watch their videos for more than a few minutes before getting bored.
15. How many times do you need to tell the same story?
Among storytellers, we say you need to tell the same story seven times. Telling the same story over and over is like walking in new shoes. The story will adapt to you, and you will adapt to the story.
16. Why is a storyteller also called a professional liar?
A storyteller always tells stories that are not entirely true. Their stories range from total fantasy to embellished or condensed subjective versions of what happened. So in a way, a storyteller is constantly lying, and a professional storyteller is a professional liar.
17. Is a storyteller an actor?
A storyteller is not an actor. In general, storytellers tell a story as themselves, not acting a role. However, they will often act out certain characters when telling a story. Actors, however, can also be great storytellers.
18. Is a storyteller a writer?
A storyteller is not necessarily a writer. Most storytellers never write down their versions of the stories they tell. Only a few write books.
There are quite some differences between oral storytelling and written storytelling.
19. What were oral storytellers called?
Throughout history, oral storytellers worldwide have been called by many names. Skald, Kathakar, Griot, Ashik and Bard, to name a few.
Here you will find more information about ten worldwide storytelling traditions:
Can you answer my question about oral storytelling?
Yes, I probably can. Send me your question by email here:
Photo credits: Storyblocks