There have been stories as long as there have been humans. Maybe even before. After all, the line between one side of evolution and the other is quite blurry. What defines humanity? From an anthropological lens, we might assume that the rise of homo sapiens was the dawn of humanity. But some of the oldest cave paintings and artwork we have found fades back as far as that blurry line. If Australopithecus scratched out a picture on the wall of a cave millions of years ago, who’s to say that wasn’t a story?
While cave pictures and drawings were likely the beginning of storytelling, language and the ability to communicate verbally between members of a society is where stories really began to shine. Far before the written word gave us the ability to tell our stories to people we’d never met and generations that haven’t come, oral tradition was the best and only way to keep the stories alive. Some of the richest storytelling that we have comes from these oral traditions. Unfortunately, many of these oral art forms are becoming lost in the modern age of easy data storage and mass communication. In the age of consumption, even though technology allows us to do so, most of us do not produce. And this trend is puzzling – mass streaming video platforms, the availability of online education and learning, even ad hoc communities of practice that develop around people’s video channels or podcasts are incredibly fertile ground for the seeds of storytelling. If anything, with the right platform, these oral traditions should enjoy an explosion of popularity and pass on.
We see this trend in modern media as more people turn to audiovisual and immersive storytelling in addition to the written word. However, I don’t think that these other immersive storytelling mediums will stamp out the written word anytime soon, simply because the power of a written story is still in the ability of the author to put the audience inside the mind and experience of the characters.
Someday, this might be possible with full immersion direct mind interfaces, but even then, you will only have the recording in one static way. The real beauty of a story is that everybody who reads it will interpret it and a slightly different way because of their own lens and their own experiences. So while all mediums of storytelling have their own power, if anything, oral tradition and storytelling will only continue to become more relevant.
The legacy of storytelling has not been restricted just to oral traditions and histories but has been indelibly imprinted with people’s beliefs about their experience in the world. Religion is one of the earliest forms of storytelling. As religions have risen, fallen, grown, and evolved, the stories have become a blend of historical accounts, a struggle to make sense of the unknowable portions of our universe, and an expression of belief and morality.
Whether oral tradition or religion, stories have always had the power to teach. Even a story designed purely to be entertaining cannot do so without carrying some kernel of truth at its core. Storytelling and teaching have been hand in hand throughout recorded human history, and likely before that. A hunter tells how they managed to track down the animal that feeds the village for a week. The inventor tells the story of how she managed to stumble into a great discovery that led to the modern study of radioactivity and clean energy. And today, in our very households, we tell our children the stories of our own youth, trying with each one to deliver some small bit of advice, knowledge, or other information that we think will help our children to be more prepared for the world.
From cave paintings to oral tradition, video games to novels, stories have always been a critical part of the human experience. But more than all of these things, stories have had a purpose and a reason. The reason stories were told was to explain or convey meaning. Making sense of the things we experience in the world is a critical skill. Today, it doesn’t matter if you’re a leader in the boardroom or the job site. It doesn’t matter if you teach toddlers or teenagers. Stories are as inescapable and are modern lives as they have been throughout the existence of humanity. We can learn to tell good stories, compelling stories, stories that teach and reveal. The power of storytelling is inside each of us, and by studying what makes a story good, we can all step into the shoes of those who came before us as storytellers.