The Storytelling Covenant, Part 2

Theatre masks.
(Drawing by Ikiyuzlu)







[Scene: Audience member is at home chilling on the sofa with his laptop. He surfs to Enter Jason Dean.]

AUDIENCE MEMBER: (Skeptically) Why should I read your post?

JASON DEAN: (Enthusiastically): If you’re open-minded and read it from start to finish, I promise you’ll find it interesting. You may even find it informative. What do you do?

AUDIENCE MEMBER: I’m a content marketer.

JASON DEAN: Great! You may even find this post useful and applicable to your professional practice.

In his highly recommended book Digital Storytelling in the Classroom (Corwin, Sage Publications, London 2013), Jason B. Ohler argues that “storytelling is an ancient social dynamic that is built on an unspoken covenant of trust between tellers and listeners.”

Cover design of Ohler's Digital Storytelling in the Classroom.
Ohler’s Digital Storytelling in the Classroom is a great resource for teachers wanting to incorporate digital storytelling into the classroom.
Cover design by Gail Buschman





Ohler suggests that in exchange for the audience’s attention, the storyteller will uphold the “covenant” in the following ways:

  • Tell an interesting and engaging story
  • The story will resolve a state of expectation
  • The story will make sense

In his 18th century comedic masterpiece Tom Jones, Henry Fielding sounds like Ohler in one serious passage: “Nor do I doubt, while I make [the reader’s] interest the great rule of my writing, they will unanimously concur in supporting my dignity, and in rendering me all the honour I shall deserve or desire.”

Book cover of Fielding's Tom Jones.
Fielding’s Tom Jones is an 18th century classic.
Cover, painting by George Lambert.

For his part, Ohler doesn’t say exactly how this ancient covenant came about. But I would submit the following.

In conducting research for my major research paper at graduate school, I discovered that our storytelling ancestors knew that sharing stories was needed for their survival. Stories were an excellent tool to exchange vital information. What animals were dangerous and therefore to be avoided? What animals were the most pleasing to be eaten? Which terrain was safe to travel upon? This, I believe, is why the storytelling covenant came into effect. Storytelling was serious business. Peoples’ livelihoods were at stake. And, so, covenants were entered into.

In an earlier blog, I list more of the characteristics this covenant as described by Ohler. But I want to draw attention to two points here:

  1. Audiences are eager to hear what happens next and are not disappointed by it.
  2. Storytellers stay on message and don’t include irrelevant information

The storytelling covenant appears to be a useful concept for communication professionals for obvious reasons. However, in playing devil’s advocate, one may ask the following questions.

Can it be a true covenant if all parties involved do not explicitly know that it is one?

The answer, of course, is yes because on some level we are all aware that the covenant exists, when it is upheld and when it is broken. We just know.

But wouldn’t the covenant be stronger if all parties did explicitly know their roles and obligations?

Yes; but as it exists, even though most people are unaware of its existence, they sense when the covenant is maintained or broken. Perhaps this is a type of covenant that doesn’t need to be explicitly articulated.

Perhaps the audience need not explicitly know about the covenant’s existence; perhaps they only need to know whether they like or dislike a story, or whether the story is useful or not. However, wouldn’t the storyteller’s art be stronger if he or she were aware of the storytelling covenant and exploited it for his or her benefit?

This is undoubtedly true. Strategic use of the covenant—being aware of the audiences’ expectations, being aware of the storytellers’ duties etc.—amounts to another tool in the storyteller’s toolbox. Still, many storytellers are highly effective without explicitly knowing the covenant exists.

In sum, storytellers like our audience member—the content marketer—intuitively know the covenant exists, even if he or she hasn’t read Ohler or Fielding. What is content marketing, for example, but establishing a relationship with audiences? And what is a covenant but entering into a special relationship with another party or parties? Breaking the covenant is a serious misstep for the content marketer. If his or her relationship with the audience is not strong that audience is unlikely to consume the marketer’s products and/or services when it is time for them to convert.

The storytelling covenant is an invisible but powerful concept for communicators.

AUDIENCE MEMBER: (Thoughtfully): You were right, Jason Dean! This is definitely an interesting topic. And, yes, I can see how it will help me be aware of my responsibilities as a storyteller, so that my stories don’t leave audiences feeling cheated…in some elusive way.

The End

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