What is the effect of storytelling?

Illustration Transkulturalität U. Breinl
© U. Breinl

Storytelling exhilarates, reminds, grips, delights, relieves, encourages, encourages and relaxes. Storytelling fosters imagination, creates community and meaning, helps language acquisition, expands vocabulary, and last but not least has a transcultural effect.

Storytelling fosters imagination and builds community

Above all, storytelling stimulates the imagination. Both the narrator and the audience wander together between the worlds, are physically together at the place of the performance and at the same time at the place of the action in the story, experience with all their senses what the heroines experience, see the landscapes described, the spaces. They connect emotionally with the characters and the events.

Unlike in a film, however, the audience does not see any prefabricated images, but creates its own images as a “cinema in the head” based on the words of the narrator. This is an unusually stimulating and at the same time relaxing activity in a time when screens and ready-made images dominate everyday life and the art landscape.

Through the reduction to one point of reference, namely that of the narrator, through the human proximity, the soothing voice, many experience narration as restful and effective against stress. Even people who are easily distracted, especially children, can concentrate and focus well.

Less strenuous than reading, each spectator creates his or her own imaginary world by virtue of his or her imagination, according to his or her own knowledge, wishes, preferences, fears and experiences. That is why there is only one story, but countless versions in the minds of narrators and spectators.

Those whose own imaginary worlds have been awakened, and with them their personal memories, also want to share them and are curious about the associations and memories of other people. After storytelling events, conversations often arise between people who were previously strangers, because they feel connected to each other through the adventures they have just experienced together, through the shared excitement and laughter.

The storytellers like to mingle with the audience, before or after the performance, or even during the breaks. Often, conversations arise with a special familiarity, because people think they have known each other for a long time. In storytelling, the so-called 4th wall that separates the audience from the performers in the theatre does not exist during the performance.

Narrative art has a transcultural effect

Narrative art exists all over the world. In the past, it has developed culturally very different forms of presentation. The rakugo in Japan differs from the performances of the griots in West Africa and these in turn from the Druidic storytelling tradition. Coffee house storytellers in North Africa tell different and different stories than the Inuit. Through exchange at international festivals, through travelling and researching storytellers, through general migration, not only have traditional stories travelled all over the world, but also the culturally different expressions of the art of storytelling. Forms and rituals were adopted in the past and continue to be adopted by contemporary storytellers and combined with forms of performing art common in their own culture. The changes in media storytelling also naturally influence the art of oral storytelling.

The storytellers of the Erzählkunst association take these constantly changing cultural influences into account in their processes of appropriating stories and forms of representation. They do not see themselves as representatives of ONE culture, or of a fixed, old tradition, but as bearers and producers of different cultures.

Traditional stories have similar content all over the world. The same motifs and plotlines can be found everywhere – just in a different guise. Landscapes, meals, titles of rulers change, but the plot remains the same. The narrators convey a respectful approach to other cultures. They arouse curiosity about other cultures. They present their customs and traditions through the stories. Often, the storytellers intersperse original languages and dialects in the beginning of the story or in the dialogue of their characters. And sometimes they also reveal how the story came to them.

Since the stories deal with universal themes of humanity, the audience also becomes deeply emotionally involved with heroines from other cultures. This can reduce prejudice and arouse curiosity about what is foreign. If the audience is heterogeneous and experiences that all people, regardless of age, gender and origin, are equally involved in the story, this breaks down possible barriers between them.

Multilingual tandem storytelling enhances the transcultural effect by having the narrators tell a story in parallel in different languages. The audience witnesses an improvised and functioning communication between two or more actors, one of whom has little or no knowledge of the other language. All languages simultaneously show their poetic radiance and beauty. By means of a virtuoso play between the familiar and the foreign languages, the narrators build bridges of understanding, complemented by facial expressions and gestures, so that the audience understands the story even if they do not understand the language.

Storytelling promotes language acquisition and vocabulary

The association Erzählkunst is strongly committed to promoting language through free oral storytelling. Storytellers work in schools and day-care centres with a high proportion of children who either do not speak German as their mother tongue or who do not speak much or only rudimentary German at home. For some years now, welcome classes and refugee shelters have been added to the list. The members of the association also carry out narrative education projects.

The combination of spoken word with simultaneous gestures, facial expressions and movement supports the learning and further development of language skills. Through repeated telling, listening and retelling, one learns a language like a mother tongue. The storyteller is a role model for language and conveys the joy of language. The stories are about wonder, wit and wisdom. While most refugees and migrants are mainly confronted with the technical side of the German language in everyday life, with instructions, applications, formalities, regulations and lessons that focus on grammar and writing, they learn about the poetic side of the language in the storytelling times. They can sit back and relax and enjoy the German language and imitate it playfully.

The dramaturgical structure of orally told stories is simple. There are no great leaps in time, retrospectives and interlacing as in literature. The sentence structure is kept just as simple. Especially in traditional stories, repetitions of action, phrases and words play a central role, so that even viewers who do not understand everything or almost nothing can follow the stories. Some storytellers use aids such as kamishibai, a Japanese paper theatre, or pictures quickly sketched on paper during the storytelling, for an audience that has no language skills at all.

The dialogue principle also encourages the audience to actively participate in shaping the story. The audience speaks along with passages of text, answers questions, solves riddles, makes comments or is invited to sing along. Last but not least, the narrator can always reassure the audience through direct eye contact that she is understood, which is not possible when reading a book aloud, as the reader has to concentrate her attention on the book.

Understanding and reproducing the story far beyond one’s own language learning level creates satisfaction and leads to the self-confidence of being able to master the language. This in turn triggers feelings of happiness that help with further learning.

But it is not only for learners of a foreign language that storytelling opens up an unknown or at least not actively existing vocabulary. Even native speakers are not (or no longer) familiar with many words and terms:Proverbs and phrases that are no longer common, and the old occupational names, activities, customs, materials, (work) equipment, plant and animal species often contained in folk tales.Last but not least, the narrator’s neologisms enrich the audience’s personal vocabulary in a fun way!

Storytelling creates peace and meaning

Narrative art is primarily created in the moment of performance and is therefore an art that sees the audience not as consumers but as actors. The audience creates images in their mind’s eye without being aware of it. This unconstrained creativity causes the individual to leave a storytelling event satisfied and strengthened. The dream images created can help to recognise and resolve inner unresolved conflicts. In conflicts with others, stories can contribute to an understanding of the other side. Storytelling brings strangers close, so that social fears can also be resolved.

The declared aim of storytelling is not to provoke the audience, but to reconcile the audience with itself and with others. In this sense, storytelling is peacemaking.

Even though some stories can be deeply shocking in their content, they ultimately aim at catharsis, the cleansing power of redemption. Unlike in theatre, cinema or computer games, violence is not depicted in concrete terms, but the creation of imaginary representations of violence only goes as far as it seems bearable for the individual at the moment.

Narrative art also never celebrates violence as an end in itself and does not address the real-psychological effects on the victim. Moreover, most traditional stories end well, with self-empowerment of the heroine, or if it ends badly for her, with moral guidance on how to live properly.

The storytellers themselves, on the other hand, do not pass on their own moral concepts, do not add their opinion. They do not want to manipulate the audience to steer them in a certain direction, but leave the story open to meaning. The sovereignty of interpretation always remains with the audience!

However, the storyteller has the responsibility not to overwhelm the audience. This is especially important for smaller children. Of course it can be exciting, but only as far as it remains within the range of pleasurable fear. Here again, the moment of improvisation is very important. If a narrator notices that someone is getting scared, she can reduce the violence, exaggerate it in a way that makes it funny, and she can send a promise with her looks that it will end well for the heroine.