Who or what is a professional storyteller?

By Limor Shiponi

Bottom line: I’m starting to realize those are the wrong questions. The real ones are “who is a storyteller?” or “what is a storyteller?” or “what is storytelling?”

In today’s world, when the professional Modus Vivendi has become, “I say who and what I am, and who are you to say I’m not”, it’s pretty obvious people get confused with their professional identity.

Now, I’m not going to try and solve the nonexistent “we are all storytellers” issue around people in marketing, gaming, leadership, science, continue the list as far as you want. First, they don’t introduce themselves as storytellers, although they claim to ‘do’ storytelling. It doesn’t say ‘storyteller’ on their business cards and even more – if you ask someone else about what those people do they will say, “ah, she’s into marketing”. So they know who they are, everybody else does,  good for them, matter solved.

The real problem is within the storytelling domain – us, storytellers. Because of the great desire to be inclusive (which for some reason is interpreted as kindness although to me it feels like running away from responsibility), many of us reflect “anything goes”. Well, almost. Still, as humans, we need a clear identity and differentiators so we can know who and where we are, where we want to go, and if we are proceeding in that direction. That’s perfectly normal, and as long as those differentiators arise naturally from the core of the art and what it means to be a storyteller, we’ll be ok.

‘Professional’ isn’t an organic storytelling positioning differentiator. Neither is ‘Master’, although it sounds more holistic and therefore as-if closer to storytelling. But do these titles actually mean something substantial?

Let’s look at ‘professional’ and leave storytelling aside. Let’s go for ‘professional musician’.

Professional musicians are people who:

  • Can perform on any requested level, any part of the musical narrative they were trained in and preferably beyond.
  • Who’s main agenda, the thing they are busy with most of their productive hours, is music.
  • Who expect to receive compensation for their musical ability and practice, since it is what society gains from their choice of occupation, and its own need for what these people can provide.
  • Who can conduct their matters in what is considered at least basic to professionalism – arriving on time and prepared for your part, participating to the best of your ability, taking part in all discussions about performance practices and interpretation (musicianship), respecting the rules of the ensemble you are part of.
  • Who take care of their continuous professional development, so they don’t turn stale and gain more flexibility and possibilities.

If  I’ve forgot something you’re invited to add to this list, but basically – that’s it. Going back to my question – does ‘professional’ mean something substantial? in music it sure does. Only the first point “can perform on any requested level, any part of the musical narrative they were trained in and preferably beyond” means about ten years of methodological training in playing an instrument, voice, practicing solfege, theory, basic composition, playing with various ensembles, attending concerts, attending camps and intensives, singing in a choir and if you’re really into it, even way more than that.

Quite obviously, this is not a description of your neighbor’s 18 years old son playing electric guitar or the trumpet in their garage; even he knows that.

So why is it so difficult to define “professional storyteller?”  I’m leaving the pondering to you. I’ll just add that once upon a time, thousands of years ago, storytellers were storytellers. They were never bothered with the “professional” part because if they didn’t reach a certain degree of ability they wouldn’t see themselves as “storyteller” and neither would society; maybe a disciple or a teller to be. In that framework, the word ‘master’ suddenly does mean something substantial, doesn’t it?

Storyteller storyteller not

6 thoughts on “Who or what is a professional storyteller?”

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  2. There was a young musician, singer songwriter in her very early 20s, who I have known about for a while but only heard recently. After hearing her, I said to my daughter (also a musician) that if she wasn’t a “musician’s musician”, the one that other musicians listen to, aspire to, want to work with etc, within 10 years, I would eat my hat.

    I’m a storyteller. I’m an amateur storyteller in that it is not a source of income for me, but I am a storyteller. I’m cautious of taking storytelling gigs from those I view as professional storytellers (those whose primary living is made from storytelling, in my view) because I am aware that there are those who seek something for nothing when they are in a position to pay for it (this is a constant problem my daughter, looking to make her living as a performer, has… she’s an artist right? Surely she should do it for love, for the exposure etc) so I do gigs that I organise or charity gigs… anyone approaches me who can pay, I direct to the professionals.

    Professional is a funny word. I think it is quite possible for a professional to be unprofessional. It is such a loose word as to be almost useless and its meaning bendable to the will of the user 🙂 So I stick with “those who make their primary living from the activity referred to as the profession”

    But mastery? Absolutely. Mastery is recognised by one’s peers.

    Interesting post, thanks…

    1. Hi Adam, welcome.

      You are most probably right about that young musician and her musical development. You can hear a performing artist’s future by realizing through their art where they have been sending themselves to. Becoming a “musician’s musician” doesn’t happen just like that out of thin air.

      I hope your storytelling peers appreciate the fact you move aside when it comes to income, and value your art for what it is even if you don’t get paid for performing. A storyteller is a storyteller, period.

      It IS quite possible for a professional to be unprofessional, and such a person will be lacking mainly on the 4th and 5th points I’ve listed and sometimes on the 1st too. Mastery as you’ve noted – is something else. It’s defined within the artistic domain.

      About your daughter – I can’t say I have a way to solve this growing problem artists of all ages are facing – the “FREE” syndrome. But I do have some tips (well, more than just tips) I’ve accumulated along the years – being both a musician and a storyteller and teaching other performing artists how to make their way into and in the market. So I think I’m going to share some advice 🙂

      I’m curious to know what your daughter does as a musician, so if you feel like it, let me know.


      1. Hi Limor

        She’s just turned 18 but been performing as a singer (and developing songwriter) for some 3 years now (acoustic guitar, folk/indie/pop style)… works as a part-time waitress but secures paying gigs… the thing that makes me proudest (and most convinced of her likelihood to make her dream a reality) is her desire to make a living as a jobbing musician rather than taking on the fantasy of fame peddled by X-factor and such like. She knows there is no worthwhile instant gratification route, works hard at her craft and is willing to work her way through pubs, weddings, small venues, support act etc

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