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Writer vs. Writer: Marlies van Exter

Today we have Marlies van Exter as our guest, a woman on a mission to inspire people. I found Marlies on LinkedIn through her post about "Storytelling for peace in Palestine". So I approached her and asked her about her career in 'storytelling and communication' and she told me that a while ago she told a story for an audience about tattoos, where she told the background stories of some of her own tattoos. Afterwards, an older woman approached her and she said that she hated tattoos profoundly, but that her story really made her look differently at it.

That moment I knew I would like to get to know her more So, here we are with Marlies.

Hi Marlies,

I’m glad to have a chance to know you more. You’re a storyteller. Can you tell us about that?

I’ve had a love for words, language and writing from a young age. When I was clearing out my parents' attic a while ago, I came across some old handwritten notebooks with short stories in them. I must have been around eight years old when I wrote those. Hardly high brow literature, of course. But it clearly revealed my love for words, language and writing.

Over the years, I evolved into a curious and critical writer with a journalistic, investigative mentality, but I think I was never really aware of the power of storytelling. Until I was partially responsible for setting up a tuberculosis project in some favelas in Rio de Janeiro. The project, called TB Photovoice, worked with people affected by tuberculosis using the Photovoice method. With this method, participants portray their world using photography and storytelling. Storytelling wasn’t called storytelling yet at the time, but it was nevertheless just as powerful as it is today. By sharing their photos and accompanying stories with the world, the TB Photovoice participants, often isolated and stigmatized, gained a powerful voice to influence policymakers, opinion leaders and international organizations. Now, years later, sharing your personal story is called “storytelling” and I still use it in my work.

Fascinating. Why do you think story telling is important? How can we use the power and knowledge of storytelling in life and work?

Researchers have discovered that the human brain has a natural affinity for stories. With a good story, you get the feeling that you’ve personally lived, seen or experienced something. It deepens your understanding, respect and appreciation for someone. This makes storytelling a unique tool to inspire and connect.

With a good story, you get the feeling that you’ve personally lived, seen or experienced something.

That's true. What makes a story ‘good’?

The best stories take their listeners or readers on an emotional journey and inspire them to take action. They have to have a good structure – so a capturing opening, interesting middle, and strong end. The storyline should be structured, with a logical flow to it, and it should have an insightful theme. Besides that, a good story should include key elements, such as conflict, surprise, tension, controversy or mystery, memorable characters, dialogue, a well-described setting, varied sentence length, and sensory language.

You’re the founder of Magpie Communications. Can you tell us a bit about it? When and why did you start it and what is the goal you’re aiming to achieve?

Magpie’s (and my) mission is to inspire people and organisations to build a genuine connection through the power of effective, engaging, and clear communication. I do this through storytelling, advice, and practical hands-on work. Magpie’s (and my) vision is a world where everyone understands, respects and builds on their different perspectives. After living and working abroad for almost two decades, I returned to the Netherlands in 2017. I had just turned forty and applied for a job for the first time in my life: my jobs abroad had always come to me easily. I was convinced that it would be the same in the Netherlands. But I got that door slammed in my face. I did not get anywhere. I was not even invited to a single job interview! Because I had left my country right after graduating with 23 years old, I didn’t have a professional network in the Netherlands. So, I started to build that, meeting up with many interesting and inspiring people. It didn’t bring me much further into finding a job, but it always gave me energy and inspiration. During these conversations, people often asked me why I didn’t start my own business. Of course, I had thought about it, but I also had many doubts. But still… a seed was planted, and I thought about it more and more. The day I made the decision came out of nowhere. It was suddenly there, and it immediately felt right. I woke up one morning and thought, 'Fuck it. I’m going to do it. I’m going to start my own business. If someone else can do it, I can do it too.' My previous jobs had always had a common thread of creating connections through communication. And I have always tried to understand how to best make that connection. I have always wanted to understand communication. To explain the how and why of the different ways of communicating in a connective way. To learn the mystery of speaking and listening. And to know how to effectively, engagingly, and clearly get my message across. So, over the years, I have immersed myself in all different kinds of training, courses and workshops. Storytelling, intercultural communication, non-violent communication, inclusive communication, systemic work, advisory techniques, identity and representation, personal motives, and so on. And it was based on that passion and interest that I founded Magpie Communications. The reason for that name is that my surname means magpie in Dutch. Besides that, it is a social and intelligent bird that easily adapts to a changing environment, which I find very fitting with my mission and vision. At the start of Magpie Communications, I focused mainly on intercultural communication, diversity and inclusion. However, recently, I have done quite some work that has to do with innovation and science, such as smart urban mobility and urban energy. Not an area that I thought to be working in, but since it often lacks effective, engaging, and clear communication, and, in my opinion, diversity and inclusion, I feel it's actually an interesting field where I can explore my experience, interests and focus.

Why do you think storytelling in communication is important?

You can use storytelling in communication to give meaning to complex concepts and facts, make people embrace different perspectives, make messages more memorable and emotionally move readers or listeners. To give a great example of this: American journalist and writer Rob Walker wanted to demonstrate that stories drive emotional value and can transform insignificant objects into significant ones. For his experiment, he bought 200 random, mostly useless items from flea shops for an average price of $1.25. Next, he asked 200 writers to develop a fictional story for each item. He then placed the items up for sale on eBay, accompanied by their stories. The collection of cheap items suddenly skyrocketed in value, from an original collective cost of $250 to a sales total of nearly $8,000. For instance, he bought a little felt mouse for 50 cents. The story he told on eBay was about a kid whose mother got the felt mouse from a high school lover. The final price the felt mouse was sold for was R$62…

Now that we are facing a war between Russia and Ukraine, I would like you to define war from a storyteller’s perspective.

There is a saying 'a story is the fastest way to build a bridge or break a wall.' National and dominant stories are often the cause of conflicts and sometimes even wars, and stories are often used to oppress others. In a balanced, diverse society, there is room for every story of every community and even of every individual. It’s important to have flexibility and awareness that there are always other stories besides your own and that all stories have equal value and are of great importance. That's the way towards peace.

Have you written or published any books or creative pieces?

Up until today, I’ve only written columns, articles and blogs. But writing a book is a childhood dream that has not yet been realised. One day....

Thank you Marlies for joining us today.

If you're interested to know more about Marlies, check out the following links:

Other Writing platforms:



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