Hearing Is Believing

earI’ve been doing quite a bit of introductory storytelling lecturing lately, given that it’s the beginning of the semester. One of the concepts I typically bring out in these early discussions is the fact that audiences, at least in the Western tradition, remember infinitely more that they see in a presentation (the visual) than tone of voice or content. Some researchers have even put the ratio at 78, 15 and 7 percent. So, I argue, storytelling is especially effective because the vast majority of us (as many as 97 percent) get visual images in our minds when we hear a story. Thus, the argument goes, storytelling, albeit an oral art form, contributes to discourse on a visual, and thus particularly potent, level.

At least that’s the point I’ve been making for years. Then yesterday it occurred to me that the argument privileges the visual. In other words, it takes as a given that we are visual beings and equates “visual” with “potent.” So the more “visual” storytelling becomes, even if those pictures are only in our heads, the better, or at least more effective, it is.

It isn’t like that everywhere, of course, and it hasn’t always been that way here. I have read that there are indigenous tribes for which smelling, rather than seeing, is believing, and certainly pre-literate peoples and the blind are going to believe, at least partly, in hearing.  As time goes on, however, our communal sense of sight becomes more and more important (it’s not easy using a computer, or experiencing (I first wrote “watching,” but corrected it, because we also listen to) a film or TV show, if our sense of sight is not strong–not to mention driving a car or walking down a city street. We rely less on our hearing, smell, taste and touch, not to mention instinct, the proverbial “sixth” sense, because sight is predominant.

But how many times have our eyes fooled us? I will never forget meeting a former colleague in his office on the first day of his new job. He looked—and sounded—fine. No shaky hands, no quavering voice, and his words were confident and smooth. But—I hope you’re not eating while you read this—I could smell his fear from across the room. And last night, experiencing television in the living room, I could smell my husband’s bread burning in the toaster oven in the kitchen. We hadn’t heard the toaster alarm go off, a sure sign that the food was done, because he had accidentally set it on BAKE.

Then there are all the other buzzers and alarms in our lives, the cellphones going off, the babies’ cries, the “you’ve got mail” chimes. When I taste the soy milk to find out (I accidentally wrote “see”–“see” how vision-centric I am?) if it’s gone bad, my sight doesn’t help me at all. When I squeeze the tomato to find out if it’s ready to eat, my sight isn’t worth anything, either.

So where am I going with this? I have come to understand—NOT to see—that I am denigrating storytelling, aka the oral narrative tradition, by suggesting that it’s powerful because it’s got a visual component. Far better for me, or at least more interesting, to say: Let’s listen to the world around us. It speaks volumes.

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