By Rachel Crick
Is it possible to find a word or a short phrase that describes what we do as storytellers, without using the word storytelling? A recent discussion yielded the word narrative as a possible substitute, though there were concerns that “narrative” might come across as too academic. Those involved in the conversation who come from cultures outside of the United States expressed how difficult it is to find a word that accurately translates the meaning of the phrase “storytelling” in their native tongue.
The word “story” is rich with traditional meaning, but it holds a power over us as communications professionals that some believe should be reconsidered. Strict adherence to tradition can stop us from moving forward; but when we progress do we lose what made it good in the first place?
There are over 50 synonyms for the word story—beat, cliffhanger, fairy tale, myth, yarn, and more. And while it is possible to look at all these fabulous words and know immediately that they describe the telling of a story, none of them conjure up a definition that holds the meaning we are searching for.
The Latin word historia entered English as “history,” meaning an account of significant events. By the sixteenth century the abbreviated “story” meant an imaginative narrative. In the Middle Ages, by using sculpture and stained glass windows, architects told themes from history on the fronts of large buildings, each scene equaling the height of one of the building’s floors. Each floor told a story, and thus both the contents of a novel and the level of a building are referred to as a “story.”
Now, instead of using sculpture and stained glass, we use video, photography, and many more digital media platforms to tell our stories. Our submissions to the archives of history must seem as significant as the architects who told history on the fronts of large buildings. Storytelling is a popular term in our current media climate—would we diminish the strength of the word by trying to create something new, shirking the complex meaning and rich history of the word?
Today such diverse professionals as reporters, photojournalists, and marketers are rebranding themselves as “storytellers,” responding, perhaps, to a major shift in the way we tell stories. News journalism seems to have taken a shift from a hard news journalism to conveying stories that are more human interest driven. Photojournalists now tell stories that go far beyond reporting an incident using one or two images, and instead tell stories via multimedia presentations that include long photo sequences, video montages, and sound. These professionals are still telling the story, but given the shift that is taking place, does the term storytelling capture the essence behind the medium?
What do you think? Do you refer to yourself as a storyteller, or your craft as storytelling? Or do you feel we need a better word than storytelling for what we do as communications professionals?