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Stories and Storytelling:
Reclaiming our Oral Heritage

Dr. Orville Boyd Jenkins

Everyone loves a good story.  Sometimes the story makes the point.  Even in the analytical, linear cultures of the West, public speakers are taught to liberally use stories and illustrations.

The purpose and role of stories in western culture, however, is different from the role of stories in the communication patterns of oral cultures the majority of the world’s population.  Communication in the western cultures tends to be linear:  topic-drive, goal-driven or idea-driven.

The Role of Stories
For westerners, the purpose of a story or humourous aside is often to drive home a point, to support an idea, to strengthen a logical argument.  The story is used to drive home an analytical point.  The ideology, the doctrine, the point in a line of logic is the point.  The story is used to help make the point.

For the majority of the world’s peoples and cultures, however, the story itself is the point.  Westerners listening to an African preacher or politician are often entertained by the speaker’s oratorical style and the humourous stories, but puzzled as to the point.

This is a difference between literate and oral cultures and communication styles.

Oral Story Cultures
Communication through stories is common in cultures throughout the world, including the European cultures.  From the earliest times, stories captured history, morality, faith, and other critical aspects of society from one generation to the other.  The earliest written records from Indo-European cultures are in story form, like the epics of Homer and the religious myths of the Hindu scriptures.

Modern westerners are at an extreme disadvantage when it comes to storytelling.  Most have not told stories extensively as oral cultures do.  We may be used to consuming stories, but the storytelling skills have been abdicated to the professional bookwriters and movie makers.

Westerners have a more analytical approach to learning, and the educational system teaches people to learn information rather than to tell and understand stories.  How can a westerner educated out of his storytelling birthright learn to understand and then communicate in story format?

Finding Your Way Orally
What do you do in a situation where the people’s worldview is organized around events, stories and symbol? I have made some suggestions in the article Storytelling for Learning and Teaching.  Here are some more suggestions.

Learn the Old Stories
Ask if your host society has certain persons designated as the official storytellers.  Some of these stories and oral traditions may have also been collected and published.  When I was in Kenya in the 1980s, the History Department of the University of Nairobi conducted a special project to collect all the ancient oral traditions form the tribes before they died out in the fast-changing African cultures.

They assigned projects to university students, and professors were involved also in field research.  Doctoral students developed their theses around the oral stories or other lore of a certain tribe.  Some excellent collections of folklore, tribal stories and wisdom, traditions of origin and other valuable culture treasures were collected and published.  I was fortunate to be in Kenya during this time, as many of these books were not republished and are now out of print.

Get to know some of the old people, maybe the mother or grandmother of a colleague.  Learn about the old days.  The stories of the past and the format of the stories will give you important insights into the worldview, the thinking and belief patterns of the people.

Television or Radio
Watch local dramas, children’s programs or even political speeches in English or other language you know.  Observe stories from a variety of public sources, and imitate the format.  Your cultural guide or informant can help you discern what forms or styles are used in what situations or age groups.

Using Stories
You can formulate the content you would like to communicate into forms acceptable to and expected by the local people.  Your life story is always a place to start.  Don’t just describe what you do, your job.  But tell where you came from, events from your life, etc.  Elicit the same form your local contacts, as appropriate in that social setting.  Here again you will consult your cultural guide for help on appropriate procedures and topics.

It is challenging to retrain your brain back to its natural story format.  Learn to think in terms of symbols, myths, event scenarios.  Not facts, conclusions, abstract concepts.

Becoming Oral
Think in terms of the visual dramatic and musical formats preferred by the young Western generation.  Whether you like contemporary forms of music and the fast-cut video and commercial formats now common on western TV, observe the symbolism used in current commercials, the use of music, the story-telling formats in hip-hop and rap.

Observe how focused the young generation are on games, dramas, and relationships.  These, ironically, are a return to the pre-literate oral formats common in non-western oral cultures, and in the history of the west up to the last century or so.

Oral cultures tend to focus on events, relationships, experiences.  These oral cultures value symbols.  The story format used carries a life and meaning of its own beyond any “facts” or “truths” involved.  Reclaim your oral heritage from the host society in the oral cultures of the world around you.

Also related:
[text] Greek, Aramaic and Orality
[TXT] Jesus' Knowledge of Greek: The Role of Language and Motif in the Fourth Gospel Narratives
[text] Literacy — A Modern Phenomenon
[review] Oral Greek Styles in Paul's Writings
[text] Orality and the Post-Literate West
[text] Orality in Christian Mission
[text] Orality, Literacy and the Bible
[text] Storytelling for Learning and Teaching

Also view related PowerPoint Presentations:
[PPt] Oral and Literate – Contrast of Oral and Literate Perspectives
[PPt] Orality and Post-Literate Culture

Related on the Internet
The Importance of Storytelling in Learning
Indigenous Orality and Storytelling for Education – Aboriginal Languages and Literacy Institute
Orality And Storytelling - Matters Of The Heart
Traditional Storytelling Around the World


First written 26 June 2006
This article includes some material originally published in the “Techniques” series in Focus on Communication Effectiveness December 1996.
Last updated 7 October 2011

Orville Boyd Jenkins, Ed.D., Ph.D.
Copyright © 2006 Orville Boyd Jenkins
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use.  Please give credit and link back.  Other rights reserved.

Email:  orville@jenkins.nu
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