Image is illustrative. Jonny Lindner (Pixabay)

Did you know that storytelling predates writing (McQuail, 1994)? Aboriginal Australians painted caves to help remember the details of stories and Native Americans had the cultural practice of making rock art during rites (Eder, Cajete, Holyan, 2010). Storytelling in its essence is the description of ideas or experiences through stories or narratives (Serrat, 2008). A story can be defined as a series of events over a period of time (Sax, 2006).

What sets storytelling apart from the objective reporting of events is the emotion the author is trying to evoke and the affect this is hoped to have (Simmons, 2002), which makes contemporary storytelling a useful tool in journalism, marketing and education (Chothia, Novakovic, Radu, Thomas, 2019). If a story can attract attention as well as provide an emotional experience (Woodside & Megehee, 2009), the main idea behind it will be easier to memorise.

Storytelling in marketing works, because it has positive effects on consumers’ behavioural intentions (Woodside & Megehee, 2009; Ye, Law, Gu, & Chen, 2011). Within the experience economy, stories can paint pictures of unique consumption experiences (Pine & Gilmore, 1999; Youssef, Leicht, Marongiu, 2019). In other words: if we market a product or idea through a story that moves the listener, we might be able to impact their decision-making process. In the journalistic context, storytelling or narrative journalism is more of a stylistic choice of immersing the audience instead of simply informing them (Krieken, 2018). Narrative journalism can be recognised through:

  1. Scene reconstructions;
  2. Event structures;
  3. Viewpoint techniques

(Krieken, 2018).

When we think about it though, most of our ideas about the world are formed through storytelling in some shape and form. We all have opinions about countries we haven’t visited, people we haven’t met, food we have never tried and experiences we ourselves have never had, all stories of which have been garnished with photos and videos that seemingly support the narrative.

As educators and youth workers, storytelling is a useful MIL (Media & Information Literacy) skill for work. However, it is also a part of our psychological self-defence online, as a good narrative can serve several purposes and should be critically analysed even if presented in seemingly innocent form. A good example of that is greenwashing – as demand for products labeled “organic”, “eco-friendly” or “sustainable” is growing (Baum 2012; Parguel, Benoit-Moreau, & Russell 2015), more and more companies are misleading customers about the environmental practices or benefits of the company, product or service (TerraChoice, 2009). The advertisement might look amazing, the narrative of the story is catching, but the facts behind the story are meant to manipulate the consumer and are dishonest.

Because of that, storytelling should be met with positive criticism. When recognised in articles, advertisements or elsewhere, we should always consider who is the storyteller, what motives they might have, what do they want us to see and understand, and what might they be hiding? Storytelling can and is often strategically timed to lure attention away from unwanted topics.

When storytelling is used as a tool, it must be done ethically. There are six types of stories according to Anette Simmons (2002): “Who am I?” stories, where one should bare personal details to show what has earned you the right to influence the reader; “Why am I here” stories, where one should expose their agenda; “Vision” stories, where current difficulties are reframed as exciting possibilities; “Teaching” stories, where the story emulates an experience that the reader will hopefully learn from; “Value in action stories” where values are communicated through narratives and “I know what you’re thinking” stories, where one validates secret suspicions in someone’s mind and then dispels the objectives through a narrative. Choosing the type of story you’re creating beforehand makes the process of content creation easier once you have decided on a plot, characters and narrative.

 

How do we tell a great story? According to Robert Wolfe, a great story:

  1. Is built on scenes, not necessarily the historical sequence of events;
  2. Has dialogue that helps open the essence of the characters;
  3. is told through the eyes of the characters
  4. Has everyday details in it that help the reader understand the uniqueness of the character.

To make your story captivating and understood to the reader, the narrative has to play out in a manner that makes it easy to follow. In some languages, it is referred to as the “red thread” – some common line in all the scenes that ties the narrative together and keeps the reader engaged. The red thread also helps keep you focused as a writer – you can make some detours in your writing, but will have to return to the main line eventually.

Storytelling is the cultural and social practice that sets us apart from other species. On the one hand, storytelling enables us to empathise and memorise better; on the other hand, most stereotypes in the world lean on well-told stories. How will you use this knowledge to your advantage?

Authors

Photo of Maia Klaassen
Maia Klaassen

Maia is a media and information literacy (MIL) researcher, tutor and a freelance journalist. Most of her time is devoted to her alma mater and employer, the University of Tartu. Working as a development specialist, her job is to build a network and coordinate efforts to consolidate MIL theorists and practitioners in the Baltic Sea Region. As a student her research is focused on information disorders and strategic narratives, with an emphasis on the effect an instable and manipulative information environment can have on society. Having trained over 500 people close to her own age and taught several courses in the university for both BA and MA level students, Maia has experience with narrative-based teaching, where the most heavy didactic focus is on using lived experience as examples and discussion points that enable to step in another’s shoes. Current areas of focus: Establishing an organically functioning network of MIL trainers in the Baltics, sourcing open-for-all technological tools for the detection of manipulation, creating audiovisual materials in Estonian on MIL topics for teachers, researching strategic narratives on Estonia and NATO’s cyber defense capabilities.