Our brains are wired for stories. We have thousands of years of story-telling in our collective consciousness. Our imaginations let us picture the action and even put ourselves into the protagonist’s shoes and envision the story happening to us. (BTW, this process is the very nature of the term ‘to engage.’)

For thousands of years, storytelling was the most common way of imparting knowledge and wisdom from one group or generation to another. Elders sat down with children and told a story that usually focused on a specific event or a series of events over time (an epic or saga). 

There was always a protagonist — a human being that the event was happening to or around. And the story was always in context with the audience: the listeners could relate and easily understand given their frame of reference.

As the generations moved forward in time, the stories changed, often only slightly, growing and evolving with the audience. For example, if a formerly lush farming area experienced a drought for many years, a young audience might not relate to a story that featured torrential rains and flooding. To get a message across to this audience, the storyteller would need to take these facts into account and modify the story.

If the storyteller moved geographically, he would need to alter the story to fit the new geography. If the original story took place in a desert, and he addressed an audience in the jungle who had never seen the desert, he’d make adjustments so listeners could relate.

With the invention of the printing press, stories were captured and typeset into books. Suddenly those stories could be mass distributed so many more people could benefit from the knowledge and wisdom. However, by capturing a story at one point in time and geographic location as it was designed for one specific audience, the tale stopped evolving.

When stories are taken out of context — either because of region or time — they can lose at least some of their effectiveness. The ‘moral’ of the story can become lost to the reader, even if the story itself is still good. The result is that many of the old stories that were designed to impart wisdom are now outdated fairytales. They lost their meaning and usefulness as persuasive tools, and have no relevant place in our modern world.

The tale of Hansel & Gretel meeting a witch in the Black Forest probably was quite meaningful in the 14th century when it was thought to have originated. Experts believe it was a commentary on life during a great famine when children were abandoned, and adults were forced to resort to cannibalism to survive. 

Even in the early 1800s when the Brothers Grimm wrote it down, it may have been an effective learning tool about the dangers children faced. But the tale has little relevance in the 21st century and loses much of its effectiveness as a teaching tool. You might be able to use the story to teach children the perils of trusting strangers who offer free candy today, but you’d be hard pressed to do even that because the references are so obscure in our present culture.

To use storytelling as a tool for education or persuasion you must ensure that the story relates to the audience. For storytelling to work, it needs to be in context. The storyteller must evolve the story to its audience and keep evolving it as the audience changes. Remember Hansel & Gretel? If the purpose of your story is to educate or persuade rather than simply entertain, the audience must be able to relate to it in some way for it to be effective.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

This and all material on this website copyright KM Lowe and the Relative Writer unless stated otherwise.