Debbie reading to children during Lapsit Storytime.

I don’t need to tell you that life today is entirely different from how life was like in ancient times. Indeed, life today is entirely different than what it was just a few years ago. However, as much as technology and cultural norms continue to shift with each passing day, there are a few things that will never die. And one of the biggest and most important is the tradition of storytelling.

The Oral Tradition

Some of you may be familiar with the Anglo-Saxon epic poem of Beowulf where the title hero slays Grendel and Grendel’s mother. This poem came from an oral tradition. The elders would sit around with the young ones to tell them of this grand tale, just as the librarian in the image above is telling a story to the children there. This is how these stories got and get passed from generation to generation.

When my brother got married earlier this month, I was called upon to make a speech on very short notice. What you’ll find is that the best and most memorable wedding speeches (or speeches in general) are those that involve personal stories, so that’s what I did. I made eye contact with the audience, gesticulated and told my tale. Guests approached me afterward to say how much they enjoyed the story, saying how natural and relaxed I looked. (I was actually pretty nervous.)

But that oral tradition of storytelling persists. Even if you’re making a business presentation, people identify with stories far better than they identify with charts and figures.

Then, There Was the Word

At some point, us lowly humans figured out a way to put our words onto paper. We started to write down our thoughts and it was through the written word that our stories were better able to spread far and wide. This was true of poems, short stories and novella, just as it was true of the plays of William Shakespeare. By writing it down, we are getting the direct interpretation of the original author, rather than playing a game of telephone like the oral tradition.

The written word is far more efficient and that’s how many of us have come to consume our stories. We read novels, newspapers and magazines. It just wouldn’t be possible for Stephen King to visit innumerable small groups of people to tell his stories, but it’s very possible for him to sell his books. There is something lost here, though, as we don’t get the body language and intonation that we would get with a story told in person. He can’t feed off the audience in the same way. Even so, storytelling persists.

Surfing the World Wide Web

Just as the Gutenberg press completely changed the landscape of storytelling, the rise of the Internet has completely changed things too. While the written word allowed certain authors and writers to spread their word far and wide, the Internet has allowed for the democratization of mass media. Everyone who has a voice can have a voice.

What this means is that there are effectively far more stories being told to far more people than at any other point in human history. We’ve got blogs; we’ve got social media; we’ve got Tumblr, Facebook and Instagram. Whereas content was once presumably curated and filtered, we’re bombarded with a lot of noise now. The challenge is finding the signal worth reading.

Multimedia and Beyond

Storytelling can take on so many different forms. When radio hit the scene, people thought that books were going to go the way of the dinosaur. When we got television, we were told that radio and boos would die. And when we got podcasts and YouTube, so many people said they would spell doom for the written word. But that hasn’t happened yet, nor do I think it is going to happen.

As cliche as it may be, the pen truly is mightier than the sword. The pen can move armies of men with thousands of swords. Words hold a great deal of power and they will continue to hold that power, whether they are presented to us orally, in written form, or through a video. And these words, when put together as a compelling story, will continue to inspire, educate and entertain us.