Terrence Gargiulo Q&A
I’m delighted to present the third installment in this series of interviews with some of the gurus of both performance and applied storytelling. This interview is with prolific author Terrence Gargiulo. I’ve read several of his books and “attended” some excellent Webinars he’s presented. Read more about him in his bio below.
Bio: Terrence L. Gargiulo, MMHS, is an eight-time author, international speaker, organizational development consultant, and group-process facilitator specializing in the use of stories. He holds a master of management in human services from the Florence Heller School, at Brandeis University, and is a recipient of Inc. Magazine’s Marketing Master Award and the 2008 HR Leadership Award from the Asia Pacific HRM Congress. Highlights of some of his past and present clients include, GM, HP, DTE Energy, MicroStrategy, Fidelity, Federal Reserve Bank, Ceridian, Countrywide Financial, Washington Mutual, Dreyers Ice Cream, UNUM, US Coast Guard, Boston University, Raytheon, City of Lowell, Arthur D. Little, KANA Communications, Merck-Medco, Coca-Cola, Harvard Business School, and Cambridge Savings Bank.
Terrence’s books include, Making Stories: A Practical Guide for Organizational Leaders and Human Resource Specialists (translated into Chinese), The Strategic Use of Stories in Organizational Communication and Learning, On Cloud Nine: Weathering Many Generations in the Workplace (translated into Korean and Spanish), Stories at Work: Using Stories to Improve Communications and Build Relationships, Building Business Acumen for Trainers: Skills to Empower the Training Function, Once Upon a Time: Using Story-based Activities to Develop Breakthrough Communication Skills, In the Land of Difficult People: 24 Timeless Tales Reveal How to Tame Beasts at Work, The Trainer’s Portable Mentor.
Terrence is a frequent speaker at international and national conferences including the American Society for Training and Development (ASTD), International Society for Performance Improvement (ISPI), Academy of Management, Conference Board, Linkage Inc, Association of Business Communications, and he is a field editor for ASTD. His articles have appeared in American Executive Magazine, Journal of Quality and Participation, Communication World, ISPI Journal, and ASTD Links.
Terrence’s and his father’s opera Tryillias was accepted for a nomination for the 2004 Pulitzer Prize in music.
Q&A with Terrence Gargiulo:
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: It isn’t important at all. In fact I’m afraid to say that I believe we miss the nuances of what stories really offer. I’m more comfortable letting go of story labels and definitions and getting down to just working and living with them. Isn’t that all we really can do? Definitions fly in the face of the very power of consciousness and awareness that stories offer us. When I work with groups I beg forgiveness for not giving a definition of stories; usually to the frustration of more literal and left-brain dominant types. Then through my interaction with the group I model story-based communication behaviors. I will collage strings of stories, elicit people’s stories, connect stories with one another, use lots of analogies and references to other stories to trigger rich associations in the minds and conversations of people present. All of this is meant to encourage proactive reflection. I want people to remember their experiences and appreciate/respect/take an interest in the experiences of others, look for connections between their experiences, and imagine new possibilities. This is the fluid and emergent quality of stories. And this is the framework I follow in all of my consulting work whether I am designing a large scale change management, developing a communications strategy, or architecting a learning event.
I have a passion for inciting insights in others. I am a conduit for opening story spaces. These are polyphonic dialogues orchestrated with reflective opportunities for insights to emerge. Recollecting our experiences and the experiences of others are precious gifts of attention that never stop gracing us with sense giving and sense making moments. I am committed to living these questions…Can we be authentic? Can we remember who we are? Can we create connections within ourselves, and between ourselves and others? Can we soar with our imaginations beyond the boundaries we erect in the name of stability? Can we let go of our habits and still feel alive?
Q: Are there any current uses of storytelling that repel you or that you feel are inappropriate?
A: Stories can be used as weapons. Given their persuasive and emotional qualities they can be used to spin messages and misrepresent things. This sort of behavior eventually bears its ugly head but as in the case of short term forms of self-serving manipulation but it can be hard to detect or fend off. I see some of these types of abuses in the brand, marketing, and corporate communications arenas.
I also lose patience with some of the overly simplistic ways we all get sucked in to when we use stories to encode information in a moralistic fashion. I am just as guilty of this as the next person. Using stories to land a message or sound the trumpet of change and rally the troops around a single campfire reeks of top down command and control applications of didactic forms of communications. I’m not suggesting we never use stories to help illustrate points but such uses only scratch the surface. I see too many of these abuses in the field of leadership development and personal growth.
Here’s one way of discerning the difference between more traditional forms of communications and story-based ones:
Think of story-based communication strategies as cloud chambers in your organization…
Cloud Chamber — apparatus that detects high-energy particles passing through a supersaturated vapor; each particle ionizes molecules along its path and small droplets condense on them to produce a visible track (definition courtesy of www.answer.com)
They create a space of dialogue and sense making. This “story space” is where people interact with each other’s stories in different ways. Some interactions might occur as people reflect and react to organizational collaterals peppered with stories, some interactions might happen when we create formal and informal opportunities for people to respond to the stories we use to incite dialogue, and still other interactions, once we have put the initial stories out there, will happen without us doing anything whatsoever to orchestrate them. As stories elicit more stories by bouncing off of each other, organizational trajectories of meaning and understanding emerge. People’s actions provide a visible albeit subtle and ghostly trace of the impact of story-based communications.
Stories are not another lever in a machine. Machines or systems take known controlled inputs that produce reliable and consistent outputs. Stories are more chaotic. Once you stir up or perturbate the social fabric of individual nodes of sense making (aka the people in an organization) unexpected behaviors emerge. What is lost in control is gained in the propagating strength of the communication signal and the rolling waves of self-directed behaviors it has the potential to create. Communications function less like instructions and more like picture frames waiting to be filled with collages of vibrant photographs.
I see the world through a lens of stories. The world unfolds as translucent, crisscrossing patterns of possibilities and meanings. It is my intuitive eye, fueled by my commitment to listen deeply, which sorts through this overwhelming array of perceptions. Here there is a mingling of vulnerabilities, differences, tensions, and myriad of intersecting points of connections. It is this self-sustaining structure-less structure that potentiates powerful dialogues that lead to solutions. I want to write and perform the dynamic melodies and harmonies that resonate for others and calls them to the dance of life.
When working with a group that want to delve into stories I will throw up some images on a screen like a rotating diamond with light streaming through it, a strand of DNA, raindrops hitting a pond of water, holograms, or a visualization of zooming in and out on a madlebrot set. I will invite the group to work with the images and suggest how they provide insights into the nature of stories beyond the obvious ways people are accustomed to thinking about them. Instead of offering definitions I will talk about some of the functions of stories and the effects of these functions:
Let me close by offering the following:
Stories fold in and out of themselves to reveal subtle worlds of meanings, purpose, and connections.They are gentle transporters bound by time but that travel beyond the boundaries of what we have experienced at any given point in time.Stories free us to move through a landscape of change. We leave the dusty road of the familiar and embrace a void where we can find the freedom to chose and perceive new realities and project worlds of our own making.Stories can either crush illusions we have become enslaved to due to habit or they can lift our veils of fear and familiarity and give us a glimpse of new ways of being. Here we will find a place where we can be our unique selves while in communion with others.- Terrence L. Gargiulo
Q: What future trends or directions do you foresee for story/storytelling/narrative? What’s next for the discipline? What future aspirations do you personally have for your own story work? What would you like to do in the story world that you haven’t yet done?
A: All the incredible research in neuroscience, cognitive science, and learning are unearthing some wonderful possibilities for our nascent field. People are hungry how to be present in the here in a way that simultaneously enables them to feel part of an interconnected fabric and while realizing their boundaries and limitations of self that animate in our lives.
I believe we need to build a strong interdisciplinary bridge between practitioners and researchers. I would like to see a research agenda collaboratively defined and pursued by academics and professionals. I’d love to see a world-class international event with a dynamic format to jump-start these inter-disciplinary conversations and which culminate in the articulation of a research agenda.
I will continue my research on the relationship between stories and thinking. I believe stories are an effective lens for understanding the complexity of the mind and its evolution as we head towards what I believe will be a shift in consciousness.
From my earlier research I have developed a model of nine story-based communication skills. These are skills we all possess. We have the equipment. I have written a validated instrument that measures what percentage of the time we are aware of using these skills and how others perceive our abilities. I use the tool with all of my clients and I have been collecting quite a bit of data. I want to look at how my instrument relates to other popular ones currently used in organizations.
Q: You are an exceedingly prolific author of books that that relate to storytelling. It seems as though you’ve put out a new books just about every year. How have your book ideas come about, and how have they evolved from your earliest books to your newest book?
A: I am always thankful for readers. Writing for me is a process of reflecting and thinking. It is about taking chunks of intuitive insights and bringing them to life. I feel like a conduit. My mind works in terms of stories I see and feel patterns of swirling threads. I literally cannot turn off stories. My thoughts and ideas continue to evolve. As I encounter more and more people interested in stories my frame of reference deepens. Their insights and stories encourage me and fuel me to dig deeper. I have an insatiable curiosity and I am a relentless learner. It’s an exciting time. So many people are deeply interested, committed and hungry for conversation and connection. We have a lot to learn from each other and I plan on relish every moment - wherever it takes me. Thanks by the way for being a conversation facilitator and providing this opportunity!
Q: I’m sure you can write (and have written) at length about StoryScrap™ Books. Can you briefly summarize this concept for readers?
A: Story Scrap Book Objectives
- Create a conversation piece to encourage open communication.
- Capture key stories to examine the connections between them and transfer knowledge.
Thank heavens for big sisters; especially mine. I was over at Franca’s house sipping hot chocolate and catching up on life. While we spoke she was immersed in assembling another one of her family scrap book masterpieces. I’m one of those unfortunate types who love trips down family memory lane but lack the discipline and patience to keep scrap books. We started talking about Franca’s work. She is an international marketing and publication relations consultant. As we discussed the internal communication challenges one of her clients was facing I had a flash of brilliance. What if we helped the client put together a story scrap book and then used it to facilitate conversations around the organization? That’s exactly what we did and with fantastic results. Since then it has become one of the standard tools and interventions I use. My clients have anecdotally shared some of the following results with me:
- Increase the number and quality of communications between management and employees
- Engender greater willingness among employees to share information
- Develop a repository of stories to incorporate into other collaterals
- Create a repeatable communication business process that people look forward to and enthusiastically participate in
- Facilitate improvements in organizational morale and sense of community
How do story scrap books encourage meaningful conversations? Story scrap books promote reflection. As we create them we remember our experiences and uncover new insights in the process. People respond to scrap books with stories. Our scrap book is a ritualistic object that achieves its highest purpose when we use it to facilitate dialogue with others. Scrap books promote community because they are shared record of identity. Think about how a family photo album functions. Our stories trigger other people’s stories. Through a dynamic exchange of stories our conversations become insightful gold mines full of authentic pieces of ourselves. We see ourselves for how we are and we generate meaning from how we reflect on our stories and how others respond to them.
How do story scrap books help transfer knowledge? The most valuable information in an organization is unstructured data. This is data that lives in the minds and experiences of people. It is not easily captured or stored in central repositories. Furthermore in most organizations there are few if any incentives to share knowledge. As a result knowledge sits untapped. People do not speak with one another in ways that enable knowledge to flow. Stories activate informal peer to peer networks. The scrap books are wonderful tools for recording and transferring knowledge. Every story chronicled in a scrap book has relation to other stories. The collection of stories forms a cluster of knowledge that can be tapped. Patterns of organizational best practices, experiences, and encoded organizational cultural values reside in these clusters of knowledge. Through dialogue these can be clarified, brought to a focus, and cultivated to inform future successful behavior.
The CEO of a Fortune 500 manufacturing company pulled me into his office and closed the door. He had just spent a mint on printing 10,000 extra copies of the company’s annual report. He motioned me to take a seat and dropped one of the annual reports on my lap with a beaming grin of satisfaction. “You’re going like this,” he said. “I want every employee to be proud of our accomplishments so I am distributing a copy of this report to every employee. I’m having all my VPs go around the company to hand these out during special town hall meetings. This is just the sort of thing that will get people fired up to exceed next year’s goals.”
I had already seen the annual report and despite its spectacular design, stunning photographs, and stellar numbers it was as drab as drab can be. I was nonplussed. It was the right idea but the wrong tool. I acknowledged the merits of his strategy and then I asked him if he was open to trying an experiment. He asked me what I had in mind. I told him to identify a division or area of the company which was going to be critical to the achievement of next year’s goals. There were some unused days on my monthly retainer that were going to expire so I asked him for a couple of days to do some digging. I held a couple of meetings with groups of people from the division and ran them through a version of the story scrap book activity. I started each meeting by handing out the annual reports and asking people to thumb through them looking at the key objectives that had been achieved during the year. Then I asked them to develop a story scrap book for the year that captured their personal experiences of how they had played a role in the achievement of these key objectives. Next I scheduled a town hall meeting for the entire division and invited the CEO to attend. I asked two people with very compelling story scrap books to share them with the group. Then I gave everyone 10 minutes to speak to the person next to them and share their experiences. I reconvened the group and opened the floor for ten minutes so that people share some of the stories they had heard. Finally I had the CEO briefly share the organization’s new goals and ask people to imagine how their stories next year would be different. We were thrilled by people’s energy. We succeeded in engaging people’s imaginations. I coached some of the CEO’s directors and VPs and we rolled out a similar process across the entire organization.