The Definition of Storytelling

You’ve encountered stories in a number of contexts all your life: books, magazines, the campfire, the ballet, the cinema, a costumed performer you remember from elementary school.  But did you absorb the story through storytelling, or through another art form?

The National Storytelling Network has adopted a clear and concise definition of storytelling that embraces ancient oral traditions but that at first glance appears too quick to exclude some art forms generally accepted as storytelling methods, and used by today’s business, nonprofit and digital storytellers.

NSN defines storytelling as “the interactive art of using words and actions to reveal the elements and images of a story while encouraging the listener’s imagination.”  The organization then elaborates on the definition’s five unique elements that, together, distinguish storytelling from other art forms that incorporate narrative.

Storytelling as interactive and requiring listener imagination may be the most argumentative aspects.  NSN asserts that the “fourth wall” in live and cinematic theater, and perhaps in online video, doesn’t exist in storytelling and that the interaction between audience and storytellers “partially accounts for” storytelling’s impact.  It seems to attribute the remaining impact to the multi-sensory world the listener imposes, instead of the one a team of writers, visual artists and producers create.

It becomes important at this point to recognize what the article is—one group’s definition of storytelling—and what it isn’t: a restriction on what story can do.  An effective story will engage the audience.  You may go to the movies or read a work of fiction to escape from reality, but you find yourself experiencing the same fear, longing and triumph the protagonist experiences.  The senses a film’s creative team can’t literally touch (like smell) are ignited, and the personal experiences an author doesn’t know you’ve had affect your response to the work.

Overall, NSN’s definition caters to professional performance storytellers, but the importance of audience interaction to business and digital storytellers should not be overlooked.  Childlike “ooohs” and spontaneous utterances of “What happened next?” probably won’t come out at your board meeting, and if your audience watches your story on YouTube, who knows what they’re saying?  The interaction will be what the audience does in response to your call to your action.  If you haven’t used “words and actions to reveal the elements and images of a story while encouraging the listener’s imagination,” there will be no interaction.

Now you tell me: How do you define storytelling?

1 Comment

  1. Célina


    Do we really have to define it?
    Isn’t it just the art to tell stories?
    Simple, right?




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