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What is Oral Storytelling?

By Kathy R
Updated May 23, 2024
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Before there were books or even stone tablets with words and symbols on them, there was oral storytelling. It is the art of passing on a story to others simply by word of mouth. The most common types of stories shared through this tradition, and are still around today, are myths, histories and fables.

Myths were often designed to explain to people why things happened. This included explanations of natural phenomena, like the movement of the stars and planets, as well as tales about why people behave the way they do. Histories were usually meant to educate people about the past and to share individual stories of political and military glory.

Fables were generally meant to teach life lessons in an accessible or understandable way. One of the most famous works that uses fables as a teaching tool is the Christian Bible. Many of these stories were preserved through oral storytelling before being included in the Bible.

Even after the advent of written language, oral storytelling remained important. During medieval times and the Renaissance, for example, large portions of the population were uneducated and could not read or write. It was also difficult to pass news over long distances long ago, so people relied on storytellers to relay news between different towns and countries.

During those times, traveling troubadours, or minstrels, were frequently expected to collect noteworthy information and share it with both royalty and the common people. Troubadours usually shared their stories with other troubadours who would travel to different towns, spreading the tales far and wide. Two famous authors that collected and wrote about these kinds of tales are Wilhelm Grimm and Hans Christian Anderson. Their story collections, now called fairy tales, are famous around the world.

One interesting aspect of oral storytelling is that a person can hear two people tell the exact same story yet get completely different interpretations. This can happen because a storyteller often puts a lot of himself into the story by adding or omitting information, using vocal intonations or pausing for emphasis at certain parts. These are important parts of modern storytelling, since it is commonly considered a form of entertainment.

People use oral storytelling every day whether they realize it or not. It often takes place around office water coolers and across telephone lines. Older family members generally share histories with those who are younger so that children can learn about their ancestors. As long as people have the ability to speak, oral storytelling will have an important place in human society.

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Discussion Comments

By profess — On Dec 29, 2012

I have always wanted to be a better storyteller, but I have to be honest and admit that a lot of my stories fall flat. I have looked out over an audience and seen a lot of blank stares which is the last thing you want.

Does anyone have any storytelling tips that I could use to be a more dynamic performer? I think that I have good material, it is my delivery that is the problem.

By Ivan83 — On Dec 29, 2012

@nextcorrea - I completely agree. I used to have a few tapes by this woman whose name unfortunately escapes me. But I remember that she was Amish and she would tell these very long winding stories that usually ended in some kind of funny ending. They were kind of like anecdotes with a punchline. When I was a kid I would listen to her tapes over and over while I was going to sleep.

By nextcorrea — On Dec 28, 2012

I love listening to a good storyteller. It is amazing how captivating a single performer can be. I have heard certain stories that held my attention as much if not more than a huge Hollywood movie.

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