Lisa, could you please tell us about the storyteller profession? Is it a profession that can be performed as independent or is it a job also found in a multinational?
Well, for twenty-five years I worked as a professional storyteller, writing and performing original works on the stage, doing one-woman shows and presenting stories orally, through the spoken word. Now I have my own consultancy, helping organizations find and tell their stories more effectively. So today I would call myself a story strategist rather than a storyteller.
There aren’t really any formal positions as a storyteller at multinationals, although marketing and communications teams often utilize storytelling techniques and skills within their work. I would say it is an independent profession, one that I seem to create and develop as I go along. Because there’s no formal demand, it’s a constant process of reinvention and improvisation, sensing where the market is going, where the needs of customers are, and how I can maintain my own integrity along the way.
Do you envisage differences in writing and in style patterns between women and men professional story tellers?
I think it’s important to distinguish between a writer and a storyteller. As a professional storyteller I engaged primarily in the oral tradition, or the spoken word, which is a completely different form than the written word.
Apparently neuroscience has discovered that the human brain uses different functions to listen than to read, and that it is extremely difficult for people to listen at the same time as they are reading and vice versa. In storytelling on a stage you need to use skills that allow the audience to catch the message instantaneously because they can only listen in that moment; when you write, you need to use different skills because readers can easily go back to previous pages anytime. Ancient storytellers from pre-literate cultures understood innately how to capture attention and used those skills for transmitting their messages orally.
I never noticed specific style patterns or differences among men and women. The real difference was in the audiences. Every female performer I knew or worked with shared the same story with me - no matter how compelling our performances were, no man ever came up to us afterward and flirted or showed interest in us as women. But every male storyteller, regardless of how good he was, had lines of women waiting to meet him. Maybe an explication lies in the fact that people feel “dominant” when they are on the stage and this male attitude might attract women, but not men.
Why have you become a professional story teller? What has inspired you?
It’s a funny story. I was trying to be an actress, auditioning in NYC with thousands of other hopefuls, getting nowhere. To pay the bills, I worked as a receptionist in an office in Soho, a trendy area in lower Manhattan. It was a boring job. Everyone was away for the summer - and I was stuck there answering phones. So I would read magazines waiting for the phone to ring.
One day I see an ad in Smithsonian Magazine for a historic cruise down the Hudson River. I think to myself, “That could be fun, I’d like to do that.” So I write to them telling them I am a Colonial American Storyteller, and I suggest that they hire me to go on the cruise with them to entertain everyone along the way. Of course, it was such a ridiculous long shot, I knew I would never hear from them and I forgot all about my letter. But three or four months later I get a call from some woman, telling me I’m hired. “You want me to go on the cruise?” I ask. “No, she says. The boat will be in New York for one night, docked at South Street Seaport. Climb aboard, tell your stories, and then leave.” They offered me some money so I couldn’t exactly say no and they only gave me one week’s notice. So I ran to the library and took out every book of New York Colonial folklore I could find and managed to put together an hour of stories. They liked it so much they hired me again a few more times.
But in the meantime, I became so entranced with the stories I couldn’t get enough of them. I was hooked on the power of these rich stories, which activated every aspect of my imagination and made everything in the city come to life for me. I went on to become the storyteller in residence for the Museum of the City of New York, a history museum in Manhattan, and it really started me off on my love of stories.
Please share with us more about your production and about your autobiographical work "What mother never told me".
“What Mother Never Told Me” was my most successful show. It was also my most personal piece, based on my own experiences growing up as the child of a Holocaust survivor. I wanted to explore the issues facing the children, or as we call ourselves, the second generation. We were raised by highly traumatized parents who kept these dark secrets and “noisy silences” in the house, and you know, Alessandra, that in these cases children become hyper-sensitive, they capture “the not-said” like radar. The show is series of stories within a large story and it follows my journey towards some sort of reconciliation with my mother and with a past I wasn’t allowed access to. Because of her past my mother was over-protective with me, she had an excessive sense of responsibility towards me, and this was not making my life easier.
Lisa, you moved from New York to Amsterdam ten years ago; what made you decide to stay in Europe?
Having been raised in a European home that happened to be in New Jersey, I always felt like an “in between”, someone who never was quite American, despite the fact my father was actually born in Brooklyn. I couldn’t relate to American manners, (or lack of them), their naiveté, lack of sophistication. I especially couldn’t identify with American Jews, who had no resemblance to my Hungarian mom and her sisters and their survivor husbands who were worldly and elegant. So when I moved here it was in many ways a homecoming and a relief for me.
How has your profession or writing style been influenced by the European culture/environment?
I think in America, the responsibility is always on the teller of stories. In Europe, it’s on the listener. Europeans are more willing to do the work, to interpret what you tell them. Americans want you to do all the work. So in Europe, I can employ more metaphors and complex storylines and I know audiences will try to figure it out. And I can also advise my clients who do work internationally how to alter their communication depending on their audiences.
What have you learned from the Hungarian, American and Dutch culture and what have you let go?
From the Hungarian culture I learned their warm manners, the old-world culture and the cuisine; from the American culture I miss here – in Holland - their progressive Judaism. . From the Dutch, a great lifestyle-- they work to live, not the other way around, like in the United States. Working in a foreign country is a non-stop learning experience, the Dutch culture is so vastly different from the American culture that every day I am learning something new. They say the longer you live in a place, the more you realize how much you don’t know. I am at that stage now, just beginning to comprehend the nuances of this culture and how I can use it in my work.
Lisa, you have become an entrepreneur and owner of your own company; how has your profession evolved, what do you focus on now?
These days I am focusing on work that has more personal meaning for me. With the financial crisis, many individuals want to rebrand themselves, figure out what their current story is and how they can tell it to potential employers. So I have been using many original techniques (1) to help people identity their core stories, to tap in to who they are, not what they do. And through this process of knowing oneself, my clients are in a much better position to move others and ultimately sell themselves and/or services . It is deeply moving because you realize when people are in touch with the stories that resonate most with them, you have really helped them as individuals too.
Do your clients ever book a series of story-telling sessions?
Yes, I offer skype story coaching now. People can book a block of time and use it as they need it It’s so easy and it can be done from anywhere at people’s convenience. I recently coached a client while he was driving to the airport in his new jaguar: I was hired to teach him improve his presentations and I was listening to the story he wanted to put across.
Please share with us, what are your professional and personal dreams that have not yet come true?
I wish I could raise the money my father needs for his cancer research. He’s been at it for 40 years and has discovered an unbelievable new protein that restores the body’s natural immune system and shuts down metastases. He was way ahead of his time in treating the disease from within. He needs a little more money to get him to a place where it can be really viable (2). It would be my dream to help him with that.
What is the best training for anyone wanting to become a story-teller? Are there University degrees in story-telling?
There are many festivals and trainings around these days. It has become very popular. Look locally for a class and try it! Most people are so surprised how much they love the process and how much it benefits them on multiple levels.
What would be your advice to a woman willing to start the profession of story teller?
I think to make a living in the arts these days is next to impossible. So my advice would be don’t do it for the money, do it for the love of a good story! And marry rich.
Lisa Lipkin believes in the power of a good story. For over twenty-five years, she worked as a professional storyteller, writing and performing original works internationally, before founding Story Strategies (storystrategies.net), a consultancy that helps organizations find and tell their authentic stories.
She has worked with a wide variety of individuals and organizations including Shell, Aegon, the Belastingdienst, Morgan Stanley, and Rituals, showing them how to use the power of narrative to persuade and engage listeners.
She is the author of Bringing the Story Home: the Complete Guide to Storytelliing for Parents, a columnist with Expat Journal, and the editor of five books of American poetry.
Lisa offers story coaching sessions via skype:
1096 HL Amsterdam
(1) The Abraham Berger Foundation, named after my grandfather who died in concentration camps. Donations can be made through wire transfer to:
Berger Foundation for Cancer Research
1 Park Avenue New York, NY 10016
Swift code CITIUS33
Any views and opinions presented in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of StoryStrategies, nor do they constitute a legally binding agreement.