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Storytelling Defined

A quick What, Who and Why of storytelling

What is storytelling?

Storytelling is seeing with words. As such it is a powerful tool for education, business, research, self-development and marketing. Apart from these many functions, which I’ll discuss further in this article, storytelling is important in this time of multimedia and constant information input. To be able to tell the right story means that you can get your message across, be heard, recognised and understood by other people. The different functions and uses of storytelling are discussed below. Let’s first look at the definition of storytelling in the ancient sense.

Stortytelling is different from storywriting because to tell the story you have a direct connection between your thinking, the output and the listeners receiving the message. While I write this I can delete (a lot!) re-read, re-write and do it again until I think the message will come accross in a good way. with storytelling, espciaaly live storytelling which is an ancient art, you don’t get many second changes to try to make people see with their inner eye what you want them to see.

Is storytelling different from narration?

The history of storytelling goes back to the beginning of the use of spoken language. When the first humans needed to explain to their tribe where they could find water, or what happened to them when they crossed paths with a neighbouring tribe for the first time. 


Now (let’s say it’s a guy called Urk), Urk comes into the village and he gets attention from the crowd. He stands in front of the people and starts making a succession of noises saying:

First I walked over the hill and then I saw a human, I walked down the hill and the human threw his spear at me, I ran back and here I am. 

Or….. Storytelling

Urk walks with a fast pace into the village grounds, With a determined voice he booms out the call for attention and moves to stand on the centre village space. His face looks grim, his stance stern, his spear stands in the ground with the point up. There is a threat.

Urk says: I started walking carefully but easy towards the hill, nothing was wrong. The wind was calm, I didn’t smell or hear or see anything unusual. I walked with my spear low and unthreatening. When I reached the top of the hill I looked around, scanned the horizon with my senses. And suddenly I saw another human, he was wearing strange colours, his hair was long and his posture was strong. He looked like a warrior. I kept my spear low and slowly started walking down the hill toward

 the man, I made no sudden movements. Without warning the man threw his spear at me! I did not want to retaliate, had no idea if there are more men that I could not sense.  So I immediately turned my back on this man without honour and walked quickly back here. What shall we do now? 

What do you think will have the best effect for Urk to portray the possible danger he felt for the village and to get the right response from his village people? A simple narration of the facts, or a compelling storytelling in which the people understand and receive his message and are moved to action? 

Ok, so that’s the birth or storytelling… and the reason why we still have a need for storytelling. 

Who uses Storytelling?

Storytelling in business

Storytelling can be used in a professional setting in many ways. It’s a perfect tool to sell your product, your project plan to your colleagues or to explain problems and solutions on the workfloor. 

The elevator pitch, the charismatic manager, the story of great leaders, TEDx talks etc. etc. Storytelling is BIG in business. The biggest win with storytelling is the fact that people actually listen to you and, if the story is truly good, the listeners will actually do what you need them to do.  You can use it to motivate co-workers or employers to work towards a certain goal, to warn them not to make certain mistakes or to inform them about company or personal successes. The elevator pitch is one of the best examples of a short story medium used in a business setting. Other websites have written good and useful articles on this topic and it’s not really my passion. Underneath you see the links I found with a few simple google searches. All with beautiful bullet points, hints and tips that really work! According to the writers 🙂 

Storytelling and education

Remember that one teacher that made arts, science, history or even maths fun? Big chance she or he was a great storyteller. 

Incorporating stories in education helps and supports kids and adults in developing literacy skills and the advancement of vocabulary (Collins 1999) But mostly it keeps them involved and interested in the topic. The biggest difference between dry teaching and teaching with stories is that storytelling infuses the material with meaning, context and symbolism that gives your message the juiciness it needs to bring your message across. I myself have taught some storytelling classes to kids. These kids were notoriously hard to keep focussed on one task. By starting each 1.5 hour class with a story the unruly mess of puppies became an interested and willing group of young people. They wanted to be able to tell stories, to be listened to, to be the centre of attention and to get their message across as well. In the process they learned essential life skills like empathy and understanding, communication and creative thinking. Storytelling in a crucial part of any type of education, it involves the students into the topic and by teaching them to do it themselves, students learn vital life skills as well. 

Why use Storytelling?

  • I want to bring my message accross
  • I want to bring awareness
  • I want to learn how to express myself
  • I want to enhance my capacitiy for empathy and problem solving
  • I want to sell my product or improve my business
  • I want to understand my inner world better
  • I want to get over my fear of public speaking
  • I want to improve my self-confidence and mental health.

Politics of Storytelling

We all have our stories to tell, but some (groups of) people are more allowed to tell their story than others. The more popular, charismatic and powerful the voice of the storyteller is and the more well written and told the story is, the more accepted it is by the listeners. 

We can see this mechanism work best in politics and world wide social events. I won’t talk too much about it here because I would like to devote a separate article to this topic.

The politics of storytelling in a worldwide or larger social setting is very important in this day in which information and stories are continuously fed to us, via many different media. 

Presently some writers and thinkers have proclaimed a war on sense making. That means that some stories i.e.: news stories, theories and explanations about the how and why of worldwide events, are allowed and deemed legal and others are not. This war is going on in many layers of society and has even separated families and old friends groups because people are believing and following different stories. 

When we practice and learn what our own ‘story’ is and how to express it in such a way we are understood and we understand ourselves. we will be able to feel more powerful, less merginalised and moreover, we will hear and recognise that there are we are not alone with this thinking. So it will also encourage our sense of belonging and bring validity to our sense of reality and truth. This is one of the main aspects of how storytelling can help people improve their self-confidence and mental health.

How can storytelling change the world?

If you are a good storyteller it means you have the power to make yourself be heard and understood by others. A good storyteller can express their views, experiences and feelings in an understandable way and can move people to action. Not just any actin, but the action that the teller wants them to take. Students learn what the teachers tells them, business people sell their products or get their staff and management to move as a well oiled machine to one goal and governments get, almost, the entire nation to follow their lead. 

But I believe that storytelling does not only serve as a way of being heard and understood by others, I believe the most powerful way stories can change the world is by being used as a tool for reflection and understanding of the self. If I hear myself talking and finding words to describe my feelings I put my thoughts and feelings into an understandable framework. I take them out of the obscure realms of my inner workings and reveal them to the light of reason. To be a good storyteller is to use the tool of language and words to understand yourself and the world around you better. To understand that each and every story is changing and that we are here to learn from each other’s tellings. 

Links and references

Links for storytelling and Business 
Links for storytelling and education & kids

Fiona Collins (1999) The Use of Traditional Storytelling in Education to the Learning of Literacy Skills, Early Child Development and Care, 152:1, 77-108

Teach Thought Staff, “30 Storytelling tips for teachers”. Visited 7 January 2023. 


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