Why is storytelling so important today?

Read for Good’s professional storytellers share their thoughts for National Storytelling Week 2023, which took place from 30 Jan to 6 Feb.

Storytelling plays a magical role in Read for Good’s regular hospital programme, which sees our team of professional storytellers visit 30 children’s hospitals across the UK, fostering imagination and creating escape.

To mark #NationalStorytellingWeek this year, we asked each Read for Good storyteller to tell us “Why does storytelling matter now? Why is it so important today?” This blog shares each of their answers, highlighting the many ways in which stories can enrich our lives.

Fiona tells tales in English and Welsh, visiting Alder Hey Children’s Hospital and in Ysbyty Gwynedd, Bangor. She shared her view that “Traditional stories connect us to the old wisdom of people who lived long before us.  Sharing traditional tales can put us back in touch with that wisdom – which is so needed in these troubled times! For children in hospital, listening to a traditional story can open the doors of their imagination, take them ‘somewhere else’ and help to distract them from their worries and pain.”

Michael – “Storytelling within a gathering can bring joy, comfort and a sense of belonging offering a way of escaping together somewhere else. Storytelling brings us together in more ways than being in the same place. In an age of text, email and messaging there is no replacement”

Amanda – “I always think we need storytelling! It’s a face-to-face activity that keeps us connected with each other. Through telling a story you build a bond with your listener as they create the story in their imagination as your telling unfolds. It’s a gift to be on the receiving end of this! We create the adventures, characters and journeys. This means the experience of storytelling is special to everyone involved and it can feel really emotional as well as entertaining. When you add in the fact that traditional stories are hundreds, if not thousands of years old, then we are not only travelling off to new and fantastical lands but also exploring the universal highs and lows of growing up and navigating life. I think storytelling is basically the coolest thing in the world. It matters now more than ever – right now any of us can feel disconnected, fearful, alone or uncertain. Some really good medicine for heart and mind is gained from stories and storytelling. Feeling a bit off? Read a story, listen to a story, write a story or even tell a story – everyone and anyone feels better after coming across a good story!”

Mike O – “General answer: We are Homo Narrans, the creature that evolved through storytelling, our evolutionary survival mechanism. It’s not so much we need, it’s what we are. There are stories and stories, narratives for good and for ill. Conflict, war and prejudice are based on the construction of narratives. If we are a creature that is capable of being reflexive, then we can be reflexive about our reflexivity.

Hospital answer: In the isolation of hospital, a child can often only travel in their heads. The electronic devices can be helpful, but in the end, if there’s nothing else the effect can be deadening and depressing. Storytelling can help the child dive through the imagination, because it isn’t just passive, the child is involved in the process. In the hospital it isn’t just about “delivering” a story, it’s a conversation, it may well be joking about and having a laugh, it may be diversion from pain, it may just be about getting some attention, it may be about listening. The “storyteller” must be adaptable, to respond to the mood, and to what is currently appropriate in a fluid situation. That means being real, being present, being of the moment.”

Jen – “I had the amazing honour of interviewing Michael Rosen for Read For Good last year and I was incredibly struck by something he said. He was talking about the power of stories in all forms. He said that they are our opportunity to try out situations we might never find ourselves in. And of course he’s right! Stories are the perfect way to imagine how we might navigate parts of the world we have yet to experience, or perhaps never will. And this makes us more confident, more resilient and, most importantly, more empathetic.

The magic of telling a story rather than reading a book is always in the connection with the listener. The eye-contact, the feedback from them and the brilliant opportunities to change or bend or completely reimagine a story for your audience. Every experience is entirely unique and magical.”

Gerry – “Storytelling allows us freedom to imagine, to invent, to express. It doesn’t tie us to the written word or limit us in any way. It is limitless and accessible to everyone.”

Wilf – “Hear a story that really ignites something inside you, and not only will you become more alive to the stories you subsequently encounter, but your relationship with the stories you are already carrying will be changed. Perhaps storytellers are attentive to something like a candle in the darkness, or a beam of light alive with motes”

Steve – “Why do we all need storytelling right now? We now live in a world where live conversation and interaction is slowly being replaced with the cold and detached communication of the internet and cellular phones. Like the ever present threat of global warming we are often oblivious to the consequences as they are not immediate and often very subtle. In time a kind word and a smile will be replaced with a mass produced meme or emoji, eventually wiping out all natural and tangible contact. Storytelling has always played an important role in people’s lives regarding identification, inclusiveness and healing. This was proved during the Covid-19 lockdown, when we were forced to communicate through electronic devices and platforms, which always fell short of the real thing.

Why does it matter? Storytelling has always transcended the constraints of conventional communication. The story has the power to take you on journeys to places and times that one may only dream of, without ever having to leave the space that you are in. The story can make the weak feel strong, the fearful feel brave and give hope to the despairing. It is so simple that it can easily pass us by, and that is why storytelling is so important now because it keeps us in check with our own emotions, hence creating an awareness and empathy towards others.”

Adele – “We find ourselves in a world in which direct connection between people has become more of a rarity. The pandemic drove us to more remote and passive forms of communication. The type of information bombarding us in our homes may have created feelings of helplessness and the constant engagement with screens can lead to isolation and depression.

The way stories emerge between people in a live storytelling event harnesses and expresses the extraordinary resourcefulness and playfulness in human nature. The tellers and the listeners become an actively imagining community and this brings not only a buzz of energy and fun but also hope and empowerment.”

Whilst #NationalStorytellingWeek has come to a close, it doesn’t end here… In the coming days, weeks and months, Read for Good’s inspirational team of storytellers will continue to bring smiles, laughter, relief and escape to the amazing children they meet in hospitals. We are incredibly grateful for this amazing team for their hard work in their unique role bringing our hospital programme to life.