1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Why oral storytelling will always need a human touch

Brenda Haas
March 20, 2023

On World Storytelling Day, we ask if this human art will be supplanted by artificial intelligence? Or do chatbots lack the human factor to recreate the drama and nuance of good storytelling?

Picture of a smiling bespectacled woman.
Chitra Soundar has been telling stories since childhoodImage: Sophie Stevens

We all tell stories. From cave paintings depicting dramatic hunting scenes to hieroglyphics, poetry, song, films and computer-generated imagery, anthropologists have shown that storytelling is central to human existence. Stories allow people to connect, communicate and maintain their culture. 

This includes information about genealogy and social customs or cautionary tales that have been passed down through generations.

"I think storytelling is pretty much everywhere and everything, right?" Chitra Soundar, an Indian-British oral storyteller, tells DW.

"Because advertising is storytelling. Us explaining anything in a classroom to children or 'Why I was late to school today' is all storytelling because the better the storyteller you are, the better you can get away with things. Our politicians are storytellers, otherwise they wouldn't be elected."

A born storyteller

Oral storytelling is primarily done through voice and gestures and dates back millennia. Besides narration, oral storytelling encompasses poems, chants, songs and even dance.

Chitra Soundar, who is a published children's author, began honing her oral storytelling skills early on in life.

"I have been an oral storyteller from when I was probably four or five because our family is full of storytellers. My mum is an improv playwright. My grandmother used to tell us loads of stories," explains Soundar, who won her first storytelling prize at school, aged seven.

Having once regaled her cousins with stories during sleepovers, today her primary audiences are mainly children at schools, libraries and literature events in the United Kingdom and abroad. She often retells stories that her Indian grandmother told her while growing up, "what we call trickster tales, but they are all stories about right and wrong, about fairness and equality."

Besides that, Soundar has written and narrated stories for children that explain natural phenomena or climate change in different ways or that help them understand conflict resolution.

"So, for me storytelling is pretty much the way I approach life. Because I'm a children's author, most of the stories I write and the stories I tell come from this hopeful world that we want to create for this generation and for the next," she explains. 

Canada's Indigenous storytellers

An innately human art

Chitra Soundar also says that storytelling as an art form will continue in the digital age; it is only the means through which stories are relayed have changed.

"So, animation is storytelling. It just uses a different technology. So, whether it's TikTok or Facebook or whether we write a letter, we're still telling stories. We're just using a different technology for it. So, I don't think storytelling is going to change. It's going to change to suit the formats. It's going to change in length," explains Soundar. 

Yet, the uniqueness of oral storytelling is the human connection between the teller and listeners.

Soundar agrees that from a spatial viewpoint, oral storytelling remains an intimate experience, whether it's in a large hall, in a small group or even at a sleepover, adding that even audiobooks for instance can't compete with this experience.

She elaborates by describing how she regales her nephews with bedtime stories: "We switch off the lights, we're ready for bed, and we make up a story in the darkness as they fall asleep. And that is, to me, oral storytelling that no digital tool can bring about because it's being made up on the spot and is knowing what the children like and using our family and our culture and making up stories."

Humans will never stop doing that, says Soundar, who previously worked in the tech industry before becoming a full-time author and storyteller.

a smiling man holds two puppets including a monkey and a young girl
Global stories: Storyteller Awam Prakoso promotes the importance of storytelling for children in IndonesiaImage: Privat

Bots can't tug at emotions

And finally given artificial intelligence (AI) that is capable of producing text — even stories — the question arises if AI might give human storytellers a run for their money in due time.

A common name that crops up is ChatGPT — a prototype artificial intelligence chatbot developed by the company OpenAI. Launched in November 2022, ChatGPT is an auto-generative chat that extracts data from textbooks, newspapers, websites and different articles.

As ChatGPT's responses are not original creations of the human mind, they are not protected by copyright law, which means people are free to use its output without seeking permission or obtaining a license.

Yet, this output may contain information that is protected by copyright law, such as text or images that are copied from other sources — making it a somewhat questionable source of creativity or originality. 

"I had a friend from Silicon Valley who emailed me and asked me, ‘Hey, what do you think about what's going on?' And I said, 'First of all, if I was a human being and I plagiarized all of this stuff and created a story, it's plagiarism'," Chitra Soundar says, adding that stories by chatbots "will be derivative, it won't be original, it won't have me in it."

Soundar is firm in her belief that bots won't be able to create stories as well as people can and believes that it is a "craze that will come and go away." Referring to a story she read recently, she explained that a short story magazine received around about 10,000 entries created by chat bots, all of which were rejected by the judges. 

"Because they're not going to make sense. They're not going to tug at your emotions. They're not going to make you laugh and cry and sing and interact with them."

Berlinale Film Series

Skip next section Explore more
Skip next section DW's Top Story

DW's Top Story

Pope Francis delivers a closing speech at a bishops' conference in Marseille
Skip next section More stories from DW
Go to homepage