So this week, during a storytelling performance, a child exclaimed: “Oh, why are there no pictures?”. This was a musical storytelling performance that was staged at Sentralen in Oslo. The musical storytelling performance was a collaboration between the Norwegian Chamber Orchestra, the contemporary composer Martin Hirsti-Kvam and me as storyteller from Skaldskur AS. The performance was intended for children from three years onwards and was built on a Norwegian folk tale. In other words, as seen from the child’s commentary, there were no images used in the performance, although it was visual in the sense that there were objects present and the stage lighting that changed as the story unfolded. But no photos and no video.
The child’s comment is not unusual, it points to something that I experience as more and more obvious as a storyteller. I have no quantitative research that can support the experience, but it is so noticeable that I cannot help but wonder and in the worst case be worried. I tell relatively much to children in school, and through the over twenty years I’ve worked as a storyteller, storytelling for six- and seven-year-olds has gone from thirty minutes to twenty minutes sessions – that’s apparently the length a child can follow a plot, is my experience. Notice, dear reader, maybe twenty minutes is the length of commercial breaks on television? I have heard horror stories about students in schools in the United States who endure teaching sessions for fifteen minutes before having to do another activity, because it is the dynamics of American television with commercial breaks, but it may be that they are just urban legends.
The older pupils handle longer stories, but there is an underlying tone present that was not there before: they are “afraid” of being bored, ie they do not manage to hold a thread for long. I do not mind that children cannot sit still, or talk, as long as this follows the story as it goes, but when there is a turmoil that indicates that they can no longer listen to what is happening in the story, that their body is struggling with being present, it becomes difficult to tell. As a result, I have had to adjust my way of telling.
Of course, it is natural for me who expresses tradition and contemporary time through oral storytelling to change the narratives I tell and the way I express them in contact with contemporary topics. But it worries me that I should use external solutions to create a listening situation, and I believe listening is essential to being able to participate in the experiences of others. Listening is strongly associated with the oral, if we cannot listen, we cannot be oral.
I have been tempted “to put up photos up on a wall/a screen”, but that is to remove some of the essence of telling a story verbally, namely the listener’s own ability to mentally imagine what happens in the story. It is through this ability that the listener owns the story and can reflect and interpret what is happening in the narrative. A story is unique in the sense that it brings us beyond the limits of our own lives, it gives us access to participate in the experiences of others in the past, present and future (Boyd, 2017, p. 6). Now, of course, there are many ways to convey a narrative, a story can be told through pictures, theater, music and the like.
I have nothing against visual media, I myself am both a gamer and enjoy watching good TV series, not to mention movies. I think it is great with good photos. But if you post on Facebook, for example, you have to top it with a photo so that others will be able to notice and show an interest in your writings.
The visual must not alone become the dominant means of communication. It is more about balancing the visual with expressions and activities where those present can imagine what is happening. The imagination and fantasy is not just something that is linked to a literary genre and play. It is absolutely necessary for us in our everyday lives. We experience life around us with “gaps” and to close the “gaps” we experience we must imagine scenarios, we must use our imagination.
The Internet has, with all its benefits, brought us into a visual cacophony and shortcuts that are easy to run on a tablet or into a communication situation. PowerPoint has become a necessary companion for the presenter. Yes, one might even be spending more time creating a visually striking PowerPoint, than practicing the multidimensional on the actual presentation. I write multidimensional, because there are three dimensions present when for instance telling a story: the verbal, the vocal and the gesture. This is present in every communicative situation, down to the conversation with others, this is there to make sure we can understand each other and imagine what is being communicated.
If we are constantly reducing our ability to imagine, then what will happen to our ability to empathize, how will vision and innovation come about? And not least, how can we be citizens in a democracy if we cannot listen to the opinions of others and imagine what they convey, without having to look down at the smartphone to look for a suitable entertaining image.
Boyd, B. (2017). The evolution of stories: from mimesis to language, from fact to fiction. WIREs Cogn Sci.