Effective Oral Storytelling: Yesterday and Today

Oral storytelling is a powerful tool for verbalizing experience and transferring knowledge within a culture and across generations. Within education, teachers have used oral storytelling to expose their students to ideas while modeling engaging ways to interact with an audience. Oral storytelling has also been used as a form of student assessment within education. As Walter J. Ong explains in his book, Orality and Literacy, verbatim memorization from a text has been commonly done in literate cultures to perfect and test verbatim mastery (Ong, 1982). Literates have long assumed that oral memorization in oral cultures followed the same goal of absolute verbatim repetition that we are familiar with today, for example reciting a poem or a passage (Ong, 1982). However Ong refers to the work of Milman Parry and Albert Lord who suggest that members of oral cultures not only internalized and presented stories in different ways than literate cultures, but also recited lengthy narratives without verbatim memorization (Ong, 1982).  These facts raise questions about the extent of human memory and oral culture’s possible influence upon storytelling education in literate societies.

Parry and Lord’s discovery about the nature of verbal memory in primary oral cultures came from their analysis of Homeric poems. They found that these oral creations, eventually recorded on paper, were strictly metrical (Ong, 1982). Such a patterned structure could somewhat help someone memorize thousands of lines of dactylic hexameter word for word from a text. However, Parry and Lord believe that these lengthy texts could be orally produced without the use of verbatim memorization. Hexameters are made up of formulas, not simply word-units, where groups of words deal with traditional materials (Ong, 1982). An oral poet could have an extensive vocabulary of hexameterized phrases that could be shaped to fit into countless correct metrical lines (Ong, 1982). For example, certain epithets and verbs would be used regularly in Homeric poems, not just to describe characters but to ensure their words fit into the meter. Poets could have thousands of metrical formulas that would fit into the situations, characters, objects, or actions that the story required (Ong, 1982). What Parry and Lord demonstrated is that these metrically tailored formulas controlled ancient epic’s compositions and could be shifted skillfully without interfering with the story line or tone.

Evidence to support Parry and Lord’s claims regarding Homeric poets, who lived over two thousand years ago, is currently unavailable. But direct evidence from living narrative poets in modern (former) Yugoslavia is available. Parry and Lord found that these modern poets could compose oral epic narratives without the aid of any text (Ong, 1982). The narratives of these illiterate poets followed a metric formula, similar to the ancient Greeks’. Parry and Lord found that learning to read and write disabled an oral poets since introducing the controlling concept of text into the poet’s mind interfered with the oral composing process (Ong, 1982). These poets’ memories of songs were agile. Comparisons revealed that songs would be sung metrically, but never the same way twice. The same formulas and themes reoccurred, but they would be composed differently in each rendition, even by the same poet, depending on the audiences’ reaction, the mood of the poet or occasion, and other social factors (Ong, 1982).

Ong describes how, using similar methods, twentieth-century bards listened for months and years to other bards sing renditions of narrative that may include different words, but always used standard formulas in connection with standard themes (Ong, 1982). Originality did not involve adding new material, but fitting traditional material effectively to entertain an audience. Often bards would only hear a narrative once and would spend a day or more to internalize the story and form their own formulas before retelling it (Ong, 1982). Such a memorization methods would appear quite different to that of a traditional literate who may rather recite a narrative soon after hearing it, especially after one hearing, rather than postponing.

Today, effective oral storytelling shares the same characteristics as in the past. Adapting the delivery of your story to suit your audience and learning a story as a whole rather than in fragments remains ever important (McWilliams, 1998). However in storytelling preparation, literate societies still recommend reading a story repeatedly before presenting. Verbatim memorization is not recommended however, except perhaps the first and last line (McWilliams, 1998).  Some oral storytellers state that storytelling has become more difficult in recent years (McWilliams, 1998). Attention spans have become shorter, more demanding, and more sophisticated. Today’s audience appears less able to independently imagine or visualize, and consequently require more visual stimulation (McWilliams, 1998). Do these assertions suggest that the practices of oral storytelling traditions that date back to ancient Greece have finally become obsolete? Have technological innovations overtaken the need for oral storytelling?

Jason Ohler, author of Digital Storytelling in the Classroom: New Media Pathways to Literacy, Learning and Creativity, believes that the traditions of oral storytelling remain an essential part of today’s modern exchanges, like digital storytelling. Jason feels that oral storytelling will endure as a primary and powerful form of communication, and will remain a valuable skill in the workplace, communities, and schools (Ohler, 2012). He feels the skills set within oral storytelling transfers well into creating effective digital stories (Ohler, 2012). Though videos of people telling oral stories has been rare recently, due to expense and complexity, Jason states that this will change as digital video equipment continues to become less expensive, more user friendly, and accessible (Ohler, 2012). Jason sees future students, and others, telling stories with media accompaniment, for example with a PowerPoint presentation. Today’s audience expects a blend of media and oral presentation, so perhaps education should shift its teaching focus towards a blended approach to ensure storytelling remains a powerful tool for communicating knowledge.




McWilliams, Barry. (1998). Effective Storytelling A manual for beginners. Retrieved September 27th, 2012 from http://www.eldrbarry.net/roos/eest.htm


Ohler, Jason. (2012). Storytelling and new media narrative Part I – Storytelling, literacy and learning. Retrieved September 27th, 2012 from http://www.jasonohler.com/storytelling/storyeducation.cfm


Ong, Walter. (1982). Orality and literacy: The technologizing of the word. London: Methuen.

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