Storytelling genres | applied storytelling

By Limor Shiponi

Storytelling applications are answers to communal human needs. The community recognizes the answer storytelling carries. It seeks the people who can answer the demand. In modern times those witnessing the telling do not necessarily have to know each other. You can come and leave the event as total strangers. Still, as the telling goes on it creates a communal sense.

Applied art is more commonly known as genre. Genre is a pattern that works according to a set of rules. Each genre has its own rules derived from human needs and the way they are met. Therefore “storytelling in organizations” cannot be an application of storytelling since “organizations” is not a human need. What we would rather find out before applying storytelling to an organizational setting is the human need looking for an answer, a way to settle. If storytelling can help, the right genre will be sought by the storyteller. If she is not fluent with the required genre, another teller who is should better take over.

In the same way calling “visual storytelling” an application is also out of place. Isolating a core facet of the art and thinking it will carry all the characteristics and a benefit of the complete art is wrong.

Applied storytelling therefore is taking storytelling as is and applying it onto a human need. The stable readers of this blog know my definition of storytelling. If you are a new comer – welcome. You’ll find my definition down the sidebar.

As you read about the different genres you might think not only storytelling can answer the occasionally stated human needs. You are absolutely right. Storytelling is not the sole answer to a specific problem and not the only answer that exists. It does excel though in certain fields. Yet in the face of the daily stated new “storytelling evolution” you need to remember storytelling is an answer, not a problem. All those technological “evolutions” seem to me more like solutions looking for problems which have nothing to do with the storytelling problem space as an art-form. Non of them create better storytelling.

Storytelling genres

Storytelling genres are about the patterns of an entire storytelling event, not about text genres solely. You can read about textual genres in so many other places I’ll skip the subject. The connection to being a storyteller is important though since the texts that are suitable for storytelling hide more than what meets the eye. Understanding and practicing various textual genres is a central skill for storytelling. Learn about them, find texts that echo the rules and learn them, tell them, try them out enough times for you to be able to realize as many as possible derivation and nuances until you’ll be fluent and able to improvise and combine genres as needed. In order to improvise well, you need to know the rules first.

What is really important?

Knowing the genre patterns helps a storyteller realize what she must keep and what she can play with: The deep relationships between the different parts of the patterns, how to edit a storytelling event without ruining it’s proportions, what characters can be changed or not, which are the deep symbols in a story and a performance that should not be altered and what is mere decoration/local/seasonal, where you can weave in an elaborate description and where you better not, what pace to take towards the dramatic peak of the telling, how long it should be and many more “sense of story” and storytelling parameters. In addition you’ll figure out that not all storytelling genres are necessarily the best place for you to be. Knowing that will help you take better choices and excel in what you should be doing for the good of yourself, the audience and the story.

What is even more important to realize is the fact that the audiences know storytelling genres even if they are not aware of their definitions and they create anticipation we are expected to meet. If we don’t, they’ll feel disappointed even without knowing why.

Welcome to applied storytelling

I’m stepping on unsettled ground here since “the art of storytelling revival” world has not until today gathered it’s “wise ones” to take any decisions and create clear language. What you are reading here are my opinions built on my observations, experience and thoughts witnessing not only my work but the work of many others.

The elements that help define storytelling applications

First and foremost – the human need; the need for identity through sense making, order, time framing, sustainability, relationship. Each genre meets those needs in a slightly different way, seasoned with sub-needs and preferences.

Background – the reason for the storytelling gathering; a birthday, festival, event at work, a gathering by the campfire – the context. Telling without a context can erase the effectiveness of the entire telling – a common mistake among beginners and a painful one for the very experienced.

Roles – the way the roles of the teller and audience are perceived in an event. Notice the word “perceived”. This perception needs to be shared among all present which is why storytellers always want to know who their partners for the event are going to be, what is expected on all sides. Failing to understand the perceived roles or trying to force others can end up in embarrassment. Sometimes, even after carefully investigating you’ll end up with a surprise – for better or worse. A common example can be someone wanting a storyteller to perform on a family event. They are sure everybody in their family will love it since they do, but in fact reality might turn out very different. Family gatherings bring together close and far relatives who have a lot of catching up to do. Why on earth should they perceive “a storyteller” as someone they are supposed to listen to more than they want to speak to their family members?

Order of events – where exactly is the storyteller placed along an event? Is something else going on before or after? In parallel? How long is the entire event? If something needs to be dropped-out what will it be?

Values – what are the participant’s values? The teller, the listener, the story’s? You need to know including your own values. This is a subtle and very sensitive issue. You don’t want to hurt anyone including yourself. When telling stories i.e. face-to-face, people are putting trust into your hands and they are looking at you at the same time. Never betray them or yourself. If you are required to tell something you cannot stand for – refuse the invitation.

Time-conventions – some storytelling events are suitable for a certain time of the day or night. We have time conventions that connect to content, pace, length, order, style. Respect those conventions since they are also part of the audience expectations and the nature of certain stories in oral telling.

Place – in a living room telling, a teller is expected to be approachable. Platform or stage telling carries different expectations and possibilities. Telling by a campfire allows even for telling without keeping eye-contact, going into a state of inner contemplation while watching the fire or even lying down. Notice where you are.

Character – each storyteller has a character (thank goodness…). It has nothing to do with how many styles I can perform in, the size of my set of skills, available genres or repertoire – I have a character that goes with me wherever I go. Try out as many styles as possible, be whoever you want to be but keep your ear open to your audiences. Eventually they will tell you about who you are – they are the witnesses, important people in the life of a storyteller. Listen also to what they are telling you about who you are not.

Action – the kind of skills used by a teller at a storytelling event. If you are invited to tell in a house or a classroom no one expects the same kind of projection you’ll use on stage. If you are telling at a festival a single one hour story is perfect which might not pass when telling at a party. Starting on the hour is proper in professional gatherings but close to un-thoughtful if many guests on a private event are late. Always think about the proper actions for a telling event.

Physical, metaphysical and emotional state – or what I call “the required state of self”. Storytelling applications place different demands in the face of a storyteller’s “self”. Can you do it? Will you do it? Is something missing or uncomfortable? We know that sometimes they kill the messenger but killing yourself is not recommended. Storytellers know stories about peers who did not take care of themselves concerning their state of “self” and sadly crossed the lines.

Of course, there are many exceptionals concerning storytelling genres but you are better off with starting in the middle – on safe ground, learning the broad patterns and later on juggling.

Storytelling genres | applications

The titles are mine, you can change them as you like. While you read try and notice how the previously mentioned components blend. Try and figure out what human need each genre might be answering.

“Simple talk” – the audience can be of any size from one person to a small hall, the content unexpected, a mixture of short stories, anecdotes, personal experiences, Q&A. The audience expects fluency and accessibility, physical proximity. Can also be part of a larger event, something like an insert.

“Talk from the heart” – no content expectations but with style expectations derived from the name of the genre. Fluent style, most of the stories will be told in the first person as or as-if personal, building on common events or themes/phases in human life. Works well in community/friends gatherings.

“Children with participation” – content that suites the present age span, stories, games, riddles, songs, improvisational and open. Props are not a must but are possible and sometimes even expected. Audience can be 20-60 kids with or without parents/adults. A 25-40 minutes event that requires the ability to facilitate and juggle the audience’s attention and participation.

“High talk” – will happen mostly with an adult audience especially when the storyteller is invited as an intellectual “reflection agent”. Short stories intertwined through a 30-40 min. telling, proper and slightly elevated language, non-personal stories most of the time, stage like feeling. The storyteller is perceived as a “professional” or “the lecturer”.

“Pure talk” – this performance genre holds mostly powerful oral-originated texts by cultures that brought storytelling into their spiritual life. Often, even if totally secular, there is something ceremonial about them. Fluent speech, superb diction, a musical sense for the story and audience pace, strong charging behind the words treated as able to carry a meaning and force of action of their own. No additions except maybe music.

If the story is part of a ceremony the storyteller should be skillful in physically performing the other parts of the ceremony and if using costumes or accessories/tools he should be able to apply them in a way that respects the originating culture. The optimal situation would be if the storyteller is part of that culture or has devoted an appropriate part of his life to researching that culture, story and the physical world it represents. The audience is witnessing a cultural event and is required to respect the laws of place/space, time and content. Duration – as long as needed. Usually such a performance will be longer than what we have come to meet in most events involving storytelling.

“Personal” – a rapidly growing storytelling genre, including stories about events that happened or as-if happened to the storyteller, who need to sound reasonable concerning the time frame i.e. – events that happened not too long ago. Often stories are embedded into stories together with folktales, anecdotes, proverbs and parables. The audience expects to hear “factual truth” along “deep truth”. Duration can be between a single story to an entire performance mainly for adults in halls of any size.

“Frivolous talk” – a storytelling genre that combines personal stories, jokes, improvisations and stand-up, nonsense, riddles, puns and satire. Do not underestimate this possibility – in order to perform in the “frivolous talk” genre the storyteller needs to be sharp and witty, fast to draw with a huge repertoire of stories, jokes, tales of things, ideas, poetry, proverbs, information and knowledge including the news and have the ability to observe the audience continuously and keep relevancy in real-time, non-stop.

In addition the teller needs to be able to frame the event in such a way the audience will not turn the plate over, keep control with ease and work along a pre-determined plot-line even if while performing, the event seems eclectic although feels safe. Not being able to hold the steering-wheel usually ends up with a pathetic result.

If you need a metaphor for “frivolous talk” think about a person who can work with dozens of RSS feeds coming into his brain all at once, able to come up with more relevant search results than any search engine known until today in real-time, make-sense out of it all and smile with ease and curiosity at the same time. Ah, technology is nothing, I’m telling you…

“Strange words” – thrillers, strange stories, irony, black humor, fantasy, science fiction. A captivating genre carried by very few tellers. Audiences are usually adolescence and young adults but not only. They are usually highly involved with the telling, interrupting it for the sake of discussion, questioning (often existential questions), arguing and completing details that help sharpen the images of the stories, requiring the teller to walk deeper into avoided lands. The teller needs not only to be highly familiar with the material but involved to a credible level. Venues will usually match with the atmosphere or will be surprisingly stripped from any effect. 40 – 90 minutes event with a good following hour of discussion which is perceived as part of the telling.

“Ancient words” – ancient wisdom. Myth, legends, long tales crowded with characters and plot-shifts. Lengthily events that can spread through several sittings. Audience can be of all ages with a well developed attentive ability.

“Artistic” – an event in the artistic genre will take usually between 60-90 min. and more to complete. During such an event the teller might weave together texts from different genres or choose one while presenting a diversity of performing techniques keeping an evident sense of continuity. The artistic expression is constructed from the way the texts are crafted together and the teller’s interpretation of the entire work and its parts. Performing in the artistic genre requires the highest skills in all fields of storytelling which is part of what magnetizes the audience to such events. Unlike “pure talk” the storyteller is obliged to master audience communication and create the sense of “eye level” while demonstrating virtuosity that leaves the audience flabbergasted.

Comments, additions and insights are most welcome.

7 thoughts on “Storytelling genres | applied storytelling”

  1. Hi Limor,
    I love this: “The elements that help define storytelling applications: First and foremost – the human need!”

    Thanks for this truly great post!

    We met earlier in your blog ‘Gaza Tel-Aviv Olympic Games 2020’. I found this so impressive that I decided to include the video in my recent Prezi presentation ‘The New Trade’:

    I have been writing a lot about The New Trade lately. The New Trade is my book-writing project on peer2peer strorytelling that I am crowdsourcing. You can download (pdf) the Manifesto that I have written about it here:
    I am also crowdfunding the project:

    Love to hear what you think about it.

    1. Hi Raf,
      Thanks. I’ll let the guy behind that video know about your presentation.
      I took a peek at The New Trade but didn’t have time to really dig in. Suppose I will after the B2B Insights event is over. Would like to treat your work properly and experience it before deciding I have an opinion to share.
      Best regards,

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