Linda Garbe Q&A
I came across Linda Garbe during my regular research travels on the Web and was struck by parallels between my passions and her interests/background in graphic design and working with words. I am so pleased to bring you this Q&A with Linda.
Bio: [From her Web site] Linda started to talk before the age of 1 and soon after started asking questions, and asking questions, and asking questions. This intense curiosity and constant gathering of information never went away. Much of the information gained found its way into stories.
Storytelling has been the key to Linda’s communication success from Plum Grove, the one-room school she attended in first grade, to State Farm Insurance, a Fortune 500 company where she was the caretaker of creativity.
As assistant vice president, she was responsible for designers, writers, producers, directors, photographers, and technical experts who developed communication solutions for nearly 70,000 employees, 16,000 agents, and millions of customers.
Her unique understanding of communication and the power of storytelling is a result of her experience as a graphic designer, writer, and leader of creative groups.
Q&A with Linda Garbe, Questions 1and 2:
Q: You talk a lot about “mixing” — images and words, fact and story. Your Web site says: “Your ability to mix fact and story in just the right proportion for each situation will determine your success.”
Two-part question: How do you go about determining what is just the right proportion of fact and story? And can you share some examples of how you’ve mixed words and images?
A: Early in my career I was a graphic designer, deciding what image to use to convey an idea. Everything about that image made a difference. Later I was a writer and that was about choosing the right word. Every word makes a difference.
Mark Twain said it well, “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter—it’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.”
Words create images in the reader or listener’s mind. Being sure you have the right words to get the image you want and the result you are after is very complex.
Years of watching people succeed and fail taught me a lot about communication. I came to believe successful communication was a two-ingredient formula.
Content (Facts)+ Context (Story) = Successful Communication.
The trick is to determine how much of each ingredient you need. You must know your audience in order to make the right choice about how much of each ingredient to use. If you are speaking to numbers people who love data, focus more on the facts. If you are speaking to people who have an emotional investment in your subject you need to add more stories. In the business world it is rare to have an audience where you would want to use only one of these ingredients. By contrast, if the purpose of your communication is to entertain, it is possible to succeed using only stories.
Recently I worked with a group of executives who had just heard about a very challenging goal that had been set by top management. These were the people who were going to have to lead the organization to this transformational goal.
I talked about the tremendous power of the story we tell ourselves. They each needed to think about their leadership story and what they were telling themselves about how they lead.
I shared my leadership story. This is not a story I tell people I lead; it is a story I tell myself. I was shared it as an example so they would then create their own story.
For me, the audience for this story, it is a vivid combination of pictures and words that express what I aspire to as a leader.
Here is the story I told.
The inspiration for my leadership story is a man I never met and whose name I do not know. I heard about him from Bruce Nelson, a guy I worked with in Creative Services.
Bruce decided he wanted to run a marathon, and so he joined a group of runners up at Lake Bloomington to train. He told us lots of stories about his coach and the other runners. After months of training Bruce decided his first marathon would be in Alaska. It was a charity event. We all made pledges. We cheered Bruce on as he left for Alaska, and we gathered to hear his story when he returned.
He said the excitement was great and his expectations of success were high as he waited for the start. The place was beautiful and the air crisp. He experienced pure enthusiasm at the starting line and for many miles into the race. As the miles dragged on the going got tough. Enthusiasm tuned to doubt. With two miles and a couple of hills ahead he was not sure he could make it.
As he struggled on, his coach ran out from the crowd along the road and came up next to Bruce. Without a word, he set a pace and Bruce matched it. Another mile down the road the doubts were back. Realizing this the coach said, “Keep your eyes on my back and I will take you up the hill.” And with that, he ran in front of Bruce. Bruce watched his back and kept running. As they neared the finish line, the coach disappeared leaving Bruce to his victory.
After the race, Bruce learned his coach had run back down the hill to bring the next runner up. The coach did this for everyone who needed help.
This is leadership at its best. I want to be like that coach. I want to train and help employees so they have confidence they can make it on their own. I want to realize when they could use encouragement and run up next to them. And when I see they need more, I want to be the kind of leader they trust enough to follow up the hill.I want to be a leader who sees the pure joy of victory on the faces of the people I work with.
Q: How did you initially become involved with story/storytelling/narrative? What attracted you to this field? What do you love about it?
A: Creativity has been my passion since I was very young. I was always telling stories in the rock collages I made, the plays I wrote, and the way I talked about everyday life. My intense curiosity made me to want to know more about people, places, and things. I do not remember a time in my life when I was not a storyteller.
I love storytelling because feelings hijack facts. It is a mistake to think of storytelling as some nice, sweet, interesting but unnecessary skill. Storytelling is the most powerful skill in the world. History is full of great storytellers able to tell a future story so convincingly people rallied to their causes both for good and evil.
I love storytelling because it is a thrill to find the perfect story, the one that makes the connection and communicates to one person or an audience of hundreds of people. Stories get things done. They inform, encourage, teach, thrill, reassure, and make a difference. Facts alone rarely get things done. A story provides the context and acknowledges the feelings related to the facts.Q: The storytelling movement seems to be growing explosively. Why now? What is it about this moment in human history and culture that makes storytelling so resonant with so many people right now?
Q: To answer this I will share some items from my vast collection of storytelling quotes.
- “We are in the twilight of a society based on data. As information and intelligence becomes the domain of computers, society will place more value on the one human ability that cannot be automated: emotion. Imagination, myth, ritual — the language of emotion — will affect everything from our purchasing decisions to how we work with others. Companies will thrive on the basis of their stories and myths. Companies will need to understand that their products are less important than their stories.” — Rolf Jensen, Copenhagen Institute for Future Studies, author of The Dream Society
- “The past few decades have belonged to a certain kind of person with a certain kind of mind — computer programmers who could crank code, lawyers who could craft contracts, MBAs who could crunch numbers. But the keys to the kingdom are changing hands. The future belongs to a very different kind of person with a very different kind of mind — creators and empathizers, pattern recognizers and meaning makers. These people — artists, inventors, designers, storytellers, caregivers, consolers, big-picture thinkers — will now reap society’s richest rewards and share its greatest joys.” — Dan Pink, author of A Whole New Mind
- Our cultural distrust in creativity goes back to the Enlightenment when we discovered the awesome power of rational thinking. The movement became so successful that rational thinking became the only thinking — at least the only thinking you could trust. Yet in spite of our continuing reverence for rationality, we don’t really do many things by logic. Our best thinking depends more on the “illogical” skills of intuition and insight, which may explain why logical argument rarely convinces anyone of anything important. — Marty Neumeier, author of The Brand Gap
A: While I have always been a storyteller, I actually started studying storytelling about 25 years ago when I read an article read an article on the front page of the Wall Street Journal. The title was: “Jay O’Callahan Makes His Living as a Storyteller.” That article caused me to join a local guild; go to the national storytelling festival in Jonesborough, Tennessee; take courses from Eastern Tennessee University; spend a week with Donald and Merle Davis in their first storytelling class; read books by Annette Simmons, Steven Denning, and many others; and experiment with using stories to get results.
Through all of this I was looking at storytelling from the point of view of an individual who writes and tells original stories as well as the view of a corporate executive leading the Creative Services department for a major corporation. The ability to create a good story was equally important in both areas of my work.Q: The culture is abuzz about Web 2.0 and social media. To what extent do you participate in social media (such as through LinkedIn, MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Second Life, blogs, etc.)? To what extent and in what ways do you feel these venues are storytelling media?
A: This past year I made a commitment to learn more about social media … it about killed me. For a long time I was road-kill on the learning curve. Now that I understand more about it, I find the most critical step is “finding your water tribe.” This term comes from an article by Martha Beck who described the world of information as an ocean, which we are dropped into in a kayak. The trick is to paddle through this ocean to find your water tribe. I don’t think I have found mine. It is easy to flip over in your kayak, because there is so much to paddle through to get to where you are going.Social media has brought a lot more information to us a lot faster. When I look at each message I read, I try to understand if it is adding value for me. Trying to weed out the lesser-value messages is difficult. I am on Facebook, Twitter, and Linkedin. I follow a few blogs and have considered writing one but am concerned about the time it would take.
Q: How important is it to you and your work to function within the framework of a particular definition of “story?” (i.e., What is a story?) What definition do you espouse?
A: Throughout my life I have found using broad definitions works for me. The more you limit a definition the more debates you get into. I have actually seen people fight over the definition of storytelling. I’d rather create and use stories and enjoy them in their many definitions.Q: Are there any current uses of storytelling that repel you or that you feel are inappropriate?
A: Years ago when the Internet was new, I took a three-hour class where I learned the Internet is like the world with all kinds of places and people in it. The instructor said it was up to us to determine what neighborhoods we visited in the world and on the Internet. I look at storytelling the same way. There are harmful stories, which can lead to bad places just as there are stories that inform our lives. It is up to each of us to determine which ones we pay attention to.
This Cherokee legend says it all:
An old Cherokee is teaching his grandson about life. “A fight is going on inside me,” he said to the boy.
“It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One is evil — he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.” He continued, “The other is good — he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The same fight is going on inside you — and inside every other person, too.”
The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, “Which wolf will win?”
Q: If you could identify a person (such as a celebrity) or organization who desperately needs to tell a better story, who or what would it be?The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed.”
A: The Catholic Church and British Petroleum.Q: If you could share just one piece of advice or wisdom about story/storytelling/narrative with readers, what would it be?
A: We are all storytellers. To be a great storyteller you have to know what result you are after. Are you trying to entertain? Are you trying to sell your idea? Are you trying to change someone’s mind?
Mary Fisher, humor consultant, says, “If you have a point, find a story. And if you have a story, find a point.”
She is right. You will find yourself in one of two situations when it comes to storytelling. The first is you are looking for a story, as in you have been asked to speak on a subject. The second is you have an interesting experience and you figure out what it means to you and use it in a story.
When you understand this, stories start to appear before your eyes.Q: You clearly provide story consulting to organizations, but much of your site sounds like it’s talking to individuals. To what extent do you coach individuals in telling their stories, and for what purposes? To what extent do you feel stories work in job-search situations?
A: It always comes down to working with individuals. Even when an organization knows its story, it is up to individuals to tell it. In the most effective organizations, employees can tell the story of the organization by sharing a unique personal story. It doesn’t work for everyone to tell just one story … the company story. Each person needs to find a personal story to convey the meaning of the organization’s story.
My storytelling coaching for business people is about getting a result. They need to tell stories for interviews, team building, presentations, project management, coaching employees, and all the activities of business. It does not matter the job level, all people need to be effective storytellers.
The ability to tell stories is a make-it-or-break-it skill in job-search situations. This is especially true in the interview. Every person selected for an interview should have the knowledge and experience to do the job.
In 38 years in a corporation I did many interviews. Based on the information in the file, I ranked people I planned to interview from the person I thought most qualified to the least. In hindsight I wish I had kept those lists and documented how often I selected the person ranked the most qualified. It didn’t happen often.
Given they were all qualified, it came down to fit and how effective they were at telling stories. The person I selected was generally the person I talked about that night at dinner. They were interesting for some reason beyond the facts of their accomplishments.
In most interviews one of the interviewers will say something like, “We’ve seen your background information and read about your accomplishments. Tell us more about yourself.” This is a pivotal moment in the interview. It is a time when the person being interviewed has the attention of everyone and can direct the conversation. At this moment do not say, “It was a dark and stormy night, a shot rang out, I went to kindergarten….” Telling the linear story of your life will end your chances of being selected.
This is the time when you need to tell a story that shows your passion and who you are. To do this you have to know what is important to you. What is the foundation you stand on no matter what the situation? Most people do not know. When you figure out your core value and find a story to tell, you let people see who you are.
One of my clients said customer service was his passion. When I asked him how that came to be he told a wonderful story. When he was a child, his grandfather grew all the produce sold at his six vegetable stands. He describes working in those gardens and, when he was a little older, working at the markets. He said, “My grandfather taught me how to sell potatoes and how to deliver great customer service.”
After college my client worked at a company that did not value customer service. He told several stories about how awful it was to be in that environment and how pleased he was to now be working in an organization that put a priority on customer service.
After listening to him I believed customer service was his core value. Knowing why came from the stories he told me. They made me believe he knew what customer service was and that it was extremely important to him.
Now when an interviewer says, “Tell us more about yourself.” He says, “I’m the guy who knows that selling a policy or settling a claim is no different from selling a potato.”
When he says that he creates a Paul Harvey moment when the interviewers want to know “the rest of the story.” His story is interesting, it gets the conversation focused on his core value, and it tells them a lot about who he is. The story makes him memorable.