My Interview with Gayle Turner, Executive producer of
The Storytellers Channel…
Hey guys, this is Ken Kobrick. I’m bringing you another successful entrepreneur who’s going to tell us how they got to where they are now. Today I’m excited to have Gayle Turner with me, he’s the executive producer of the Storytellers Channel, he is going to tell us how he became a master storyteller. So without any further ado, Gayle, take it away.
Thank you. It’s funny when you asked me earlier was I a master storyteller and my response was, that’s what they tell me, because see I’ve been telling stories since they were called lies. So, it’s very interesting to actually stand up to people and say, “Yes, I am a storyteller.”
I started performing in public when I was four years old. By the time I was 15 I got my first professional job as an actor and I spent 20 plus years in the theater before I moved on to doing other things.
The years after the time I spent in the theater, I worked for advertising agencies and eventually I became a consultant, it’s a circuitous route that got me here. I like to say that if you look over the stern of my career, it looks like a drunk was at the helm.
There’s been so many moves along the line. But I should say the through line though has pretty much always been story, because I believe we live into the stories we tell ourselves. I think the first time I became really aware of that was a movie in the ’80s called Mon Oncle d’aMerique. It means my uncle in America, it was a French film by a director name Alain Resnais.
He showed these people who when they were in circumstances, they were always running a film clip in their head. And I began to realize how often I was playing a role. I would be doing something, but I was trying to live into a story that I was telling myself. And most often that story was, what would my daddy have done, I was deeply influenced by my daddy.
As a matter of fact, I bought my first business when I was 10 years old and it was a direct result of my father having told me something that he had done when he was growing up. Consequently, I have always been drawn to being the guy in charge, so to speak.
My dad used to say that anybody who’s paying attention some time or the other lies awake at night worrying about who’s making payroll. He said, “You know, there’s two choices. You can either be the guy lying there worrying how he’s going to make payroll, or you can be lying there worrying about whether the guy who is worrying about making payroll is worried about you being on it or not.”
And so, I’ve been self-employed all but six years of my adult life. And even when I was an employee, my mindset was, how’s this company going to do what it’s doing? Selfishly, how are they going to make my check?
So, you asked how I became the executive producer of the Storytellers Channel. It’s really a good story. I was sitting around with a buddy of mine who’s married to my first wife, he’s a great storyteller. He’s an artist, he’s a painter, he’s a chef, he’s an actor, he’s an all around Renaissance man. He said, “I need an audience.” And I said, “Me too.” He’s a writer, he said, “I’d like to polish some of the pieces that I’ve been working on.” I said, “Yeah, me too.”
I’m a firm believer that the sense of impending public humiliation will get you off your butt. So I went out and rented a theater and I said, “Okay eight weeks from now we have a performance date, what are we going to do? I wound up inviting a bunch of my other type A friends together and we’re sitting around a table, seven other men and a woman and divine inspiration. I had my buddy Sam, tell his story first, and he’s a great storyteller.
You could see the faces of the other people sitting around the table going, Oh my God, if that’s the level that we have to perform at, I’m going to be embarrassed. These are all highly competitive people.
So, by the time of the end of that first evening, the sole woman in the group, Christine Walters, who was one of the leaders of Comedy Sports said, “We had such a good time together. Why don’t we just meet once a week for the next few weeks and work on these stories?” Eventually we performed and everybody had a great time.
It was an audience of family and friends. So it was a safe audience. I guess it was the Tuesday before Thanksgiving. That weekend, every one of those people called me individually and said, “Man, that was great. We got to do that again.” So, I called the theater that we had used to do the original performance and they had the Thursday after Christmas open.
So we did the show again, and the first show, it turned out the theater only had 81 seats, which I didn’t realize because I had sold 90 tickets. So I had to add a seat to every row. And the next time around we only sold 64, but it was short notice and it was the Christmas vacation. So I went, eh, whatever.
At the time I happened to be a significant stockholder in a consulting firm. The only other partner in that firm who lived in Richmond was the CFO, and together we owned a majority of the stock. We had been having conversations about, well, we might want to divest ourselves of this investment. I thought about it all over the New Year’s weekend. And I call up John. I said, “John, I got an idea. I think we may have a way out.”
We chose to enter the Richmond Chamber of Commerce’s startup competition with this idea of the Storytellers Channel. Several of my friends, one of the other storytellers, Greg Provo who ran Strategy Cafe.
Debra, who is a strategic consultant who was on my board of director years ago when I was the artistic director of Richmond Theater Company. My partner John Whitworth, and Oh lord… Patterson, Patterson, I’m forgetting the woman’s name, which is horrible because I adore this woman.
Anyway, five of us got together and thought our way through of how we could take this idea of running a… Edie Patterson. God, I’m so sorry Edie, please when you watch this you’re gonna feel bad and I adore you. So just bad memory. But anyways, so the five of us got together and we made a presentation. Now we were a finalist.
We did not win the competition, but we gained enough interest that we got sufficient investment. We were able to pay the lawyers, get the website up, and the idea was that the storyteller’s channel was going to one day be a television channel. In the interim, we would simply use the internet, which is still what we’re doing and that we would encourage people to come together to tell the stories that mattered to them, to the people that matter to them.
That’s why our audiences are always such, safe audiences in a manner that their family and friends would say, “Please tell me that story again.” As opposed to just praying that they would shut up and go away. I mean there’s always that person at the family gathering who just can’t get them to stop talking.
I know my family is going, yes, that’s you. I realize that. But they listened because generally my stories have a beginning, a middle and an end at least.
Well, what we have done over these last few years is we have continued to explore just what are the ways that we can build a business around story. Because ironically all those years that I was working in the advertising industry and then as a consultant to advertising agencies, and then from there I moved on to being a consultant to general businesses, it was always about the stories.
The stories that leadership was telling to their followers, the stories that the organization was telling to their customers, the stories that we told the communities that we worked into. Because those stories are the stories that we lived into. The stories that we make our decisions according to.
Now those stories need not be factual. Because as my daddy said, “Never let the facts get in the way of the truth, we’re trying to find that essence that relates, that makes people resonate, that makes them want to be a part of our team.
So over the course of the last few years we’ve produced The Hearts of Fire Storytelling Festival, which is where we bring national storytellers into Richmond. The last weekend in January every year. A first Baptist church for the last three years has let us have their facility to promote the event.
I’ve been producing and directing stories matter workshops where people come together. The original one was eight weeks, but now we do it for four weeks. People come together every week, they stand up, they tell their story, they get feedback from their fellow storytellers and they get some feedback from me.
The feedback is very specific. I don’t know about you, but I participated in writing workshops when I was in college and they were frequently like dropping the fatted calf into a pool of Parana. It seems like people only could justify being there if they tore your work to pieces.
And so I only allow three kinds of feedback from the other storytellers in the workshops. The first is, I liked whatever. The second part is, I didn’t understand whatever if there was some confusion. And the third is, you know, I found such and such really interesting and I would like to hear more about that.
Frequently storytellers want to tell the other storyteller what their story should be about or whatever the case may be. And quite frankly, who gives a damn? I mean it’s not why they’re there. I do periodically as the director, ask probing questions that might shift the focus somewhat, but it’s the story teller’s story.
It’s not our story, our role in the workshop is to be their first audience, a safe audience and then as I say, they invite their family and friends to attend a performance and once again you have an audience where everybody in the audience has somebody on the stage that’s dear to them, so they’re kind and gentle to the people on the stage praying that everybody else in the audience will be kind of gentle to the ones that they love.
We’ve been videotaping those and then… or video recording, we don’t use tape anymore, but if you go to storytellerschannel.com you will see the storytellers tab and then you’ll see head shots, bios and then videos of the stories that those story tellers have developed.
The third thing we’re doing these days is we’re in a project with the Edgar Allen Poe museum and we’re recording the entire Edgar Allen Poe canon. It makes an easier way for people to engage with that master’s storytelling. The first question was how did I get to become the executive producer? Well, it’s the way I’ve gotten to be the head of most organizations. I started them.
My partner early on, wanted my business card to read co-founder and CEO and I let that happen and when the first 500 cards were done I got rid of it, because while I may be the president of the corporation, calling me the CEO right now is one of the most pretentious things I can think of because there ain’t any other officers for me to be the chief executive of. So what you find is, I decided the most accurate nomenclature was executive producer because that’s what I do.
I bring the players together, provide the resources and occasionally I’m also the director, but mainly my job is to create that fertile environment in which the creatives are able to create. Then from there, I guess you’d say I’m a strategist. The job is to figure out where the patterns are and find a way in which we can serve.
So that’s pretty much the gist of it. There’s a lot more detail I could go into, and a lot more squirrel holes that I could run down. But Ken said to me that he was going to ask me a question about what I would recommend for somebody else who wanted to do this themselves. I’ll share a story.
When I was 10 years old, I started carrying brick for my daddy. I always thought that that was my daddy’s way of making a man of me. He was a bricklayer and a masonry contractor. And then I got to be a parent and I realized that was just the ’60s version of daycare.
And so as time went on, my dad employed his brother, his brother-in-law. A lot of my cousins and the boys, the teenagers, we would always ask, “When can we go home?” And the men on the job, they constantly would say, “When the job is done.”
Over time, my cousins and I, we began to want to be seen as the men who got the job done. And eventually, occasionally, every now and then we are the men who get the job done. But by the time I was 16, and I got my driver’s license, my daddy made me a foreman. You can imagine how popular this was with my uncles.
But nonetheless, what that meant was I was responsible for getting men and material to the job and frequently to make sure that job was going along in the manner that my dad wanted the job to be run.
I remember my dad leaving me on a job site one day and it wasn’t that long after he left, a question came up and I didn’t know I had to answer it and I was afraid to make a mistake. And so work halted.
Well, my dad showed back up a little while later and he’s pulling in, in the pickup truck and you can see he’s been productive wherever he’s been. He’s feeling good about himself. Right? And as he pulls in and parks, you can see on his face that he has scanned the job site very quickly and it’s obvious that there’s no work going on.
Well now his pleasure in his demeanor changes and he gets out, and he wanted to know what’s going on. I explained the situation that I didn’t have the solution for and I didn’t want to do the wrong thing and he looked at me, he said, “Do something, I can fix wrong. I can’t fix nothing.”
This became the mantra that my father’s direction to me was, do something. I trusted you. I put you in here to do this. Just make a decision. His bias for action, I frequently find myself to this day, even when I’m the boss wondering what the hell should I do here?
But in variably it’s look at your options, make a choice and do something. Because if that doesn’t work, we can always do something else. But if you don’t do anything, it’s like the parable of the talents.
Remember the master goes away and he leaves one talent with one guy, and five with another, and 10 with another. One of those guys chooses to bury his talents in the ground because he doesn’t want to lose any of the masters capital. When they come back and evaluate, it’s like you squandered this.
So my dad’s admonition to me to do something has become what I say to almost everybody. Trust yourself, do something because all right, maybe it doesn’t work, but you’d be surprised how often whatever you did will be enough to keep things going.
Because momentum is the piece for all of us. When you get stagnant, it becomes so much more difficult to get the ball going in to overcome inertia. So my advice to anybody, do something, we can fix wrong. We can’t fix nothing.
Gayle I love that. You know, these always turn out different from what I anticipate, and I’m listening to you, I’m going, this is a great storyteller, but at the same time to become what you are, you also have to become something else.
You are, I consider a master entrepreneur. You’ve given this whole interview, this whole story actually a person who’s starting out could watch this. I’ve learned from it. I’ve been motivated because you’ve gone through steps of starting anything in life. You had the idea, and the best thing you can do is just do it.
So many people get stuck in planning the plan. I’ve got to make it perfect. By the time it happens, years go by. You just went out and rented a theater and that was awesome. You just did it. And when you start action, to me, action is it, and I love this. I’ll remember this forever, do something. I can fix wrong, but I can’t fix nothing. That is fantastic.
I was going to say to you that one of the interesting parts of that is I’m a firm believer that anything we’re doing well is worth doing badly until you can learn to do it well, and let’s face it, I’m not doing brain surgery. I’m not doing rocket science.
The stuff that I do, the only thing that’s a risk is our money and our time, and I can remember as a child, my dad was a professional card player. Now I don’t say gambler because quite frankly when my dad sat down at the car table, it was about math and the only people gambling were the one sitting at the table with.
So when he would encourage me to do whatever it was… Well, I’d say I wanted something, like I want a new baseball glove. He’d say, “Do you really want it?” I’d say, “Yeah.” He’d say, “Well then let’s go sell something. Let’s go find a way for you to make the money to do what you want.”
Which goes back to that first business that I bought when I was 10 years old. My parents were complaining that the paper boy was not delivering the paper on time. And so I went out and, I looked at him and it was obvious he didn’t want this job. He didn’t want to do this.
Now I was only 10 and you had to be 12 years old to have a paper route in those days. And so I looked at him and I said, “How much do you want for this route?” He said, “A dollar.” This is 1962 now let me tell you something, a dollar was serious money.
Okay? I’d begun working construction for my father at that time, carrying brick. I didn’t weigh 60 pounds and a brick weighed six pounds each. So I’m picking up 1/10th of my weight every time I move a brick.
I only got paid a dollar for the day, and I quite frankly think that was a gift on his part. Because I doubt I was earning it. But eight hours of carrying brick was a hell of a lot of money, and so what I did was I walked the alley with a wagon collecting soft drink bottles, which in those days you could turn in for the 2 cent deposit.
In one afternoon I found 50 bottles over the course of about, I don’t know, 15, 20 city blocks of walking the alleys. I turned it in and I bought my paper route.
Now I got three assets for that paper route. Number one was a bag that looked like it had been left over from world war II. I mean, the damn thing was frayed and filthy and you could barely see the Richmond News Leader logo still printed on the thing. I got the list. Now remember, they probably still have it these days, right?
You buy three hole paper for school, right? The list had been handwritten out and it had been folded and opened so many times, it’s fallen apart. Plus I also got his collection book and this kid was no better at collecting than he was at delivering.
There were $12 worth of uncollected money on that book. I got a 1200% return on my first business and I have been chasing that for the rest of my life. I have never gotten that kind of a return on my investment, but hope Springs eternal. I’m still looking. Okay.
The point of this whole thing is it took me a while to learn how to do that. Well, it took me a while to collect that money. It took me a while to just learn to go and ask. Right? But I did it.
And when my daughter… my baby runs a stable these days and when she first started riding horses, I could see she was hesitant, you know, and as she got better at riding horses, that was great. But I would see that she was very hesitant to do things that she didn’t think she could master just like that.
I remember looking at her once and saying, “Baby, you got to try new things.” And she said, “That’s easy for you. I mean, you’re great at everything you do.” That mindset didn’t last long, but I treasure that at one time in my daughter’s life. She thought that everything I did, I was great at. Right?
And I said, “Baby that is so sweet. But you’ve got to understand that anything I’m good at, I was bad at for a long time because I’m the first one to tell you that I will keep trying things that didn’t work over and over again, trying to make them work the they way I want them to until I finally figure out the right way to do them.” But it’s that willingness to try that’s the key.
My dad used to say, I quote my dad all the time. I made a living as a consultant, just quoting my dad. Anything that sounds smart for me probably came from him and my mom. I would say that there’s this issue of, just do it baby. You’re only a loser if you quit when you’re down. I mean failure is the norm. Look out here.
You made the comment that I’m a successful entrepreneur. I’ve had two successful businesses in my life. I’ve had way many more who were not. This thing about losers don’t quit, get a grip. There are times at which you look at something and say, look, this is not going. This is just not going the way you worked. Whatever your initial assumptions were they’re wrong.
Okay, fine. Everything we do as a test, Peter Drucker said that a business existed, create a customer that the only two things we do is market and innovate. Meaning we discern a need in the community. We try to provide a solution for it and then the rest of the time is we’re looking to find new ways to provide a solution.
That’s all innovation is, right? So this business of you know you should succeed every time. Yes, I want to, God knows I want to, I mean everything I approach, I approach with a mindset that I’m going to be successful or otherwise I wouldn’t try it.
Just shows you how faulty my judgment is because quite frankly, I’ve not been that successful in the sense if you’re using longevity of the business or how much money you made off the business. But someone said to me the other day that the true metric of success for an entrepreneur is I get to go out and do it again tomorrow, or at least I get to do it for the day.
So I’m just happiest… another little silly thing. By the way, squirrel. My friends always say I never met a tangent I couldn’t follow, but you know, president Jefferson back when he was writing the declaration of independence, talked about life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
I actually think he got that wrong. I think it should have been life, liberty, and the happiness of pursuit. I am the happiest in my life when I’m pursuing a goal, and with a group of people.
Someone said to me the other day that I was so self sufficient, and I just started laughing. I thought, that’s one of the funniest damn things I’ve ever heard, because quite frankly, I have only been successful when I have been able to draw a group of people together, so that we could collectively pursue our goal.
I don’t believe in well-rounded people. I believe in well-rounded teams. And so when I think about my success in the theater, it was when I cast well. The best show I ever directed in my entire life was one where the perfect people showed up for every role. All I really had to do was just keep them from bumping into one another.
It was an absolutely marvelous experience. And so the meeting I was in before I came here this morning for you, we were talking about true leaders are concentrating all the time on growing the leader that’s going to replace them. Growing the leader that’s, you know, what is it?
Peter Senge talked about that, all leaders do is initiate and sustain, change and grow other leaders. So that business of growing other leaders is the business of instilling values, and that takes us back to story.
We tell those stories of how we want people to behave, of values being the metrics by which we evaluate behavior, right? So being on time, you know that’s just an example of the value of respect.
Respect for the other person’s time, right? In the theater and particularly on film and commercial shoots, every minute somebody’s not there, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, dollar, dollar, dollar, right?
So simple story, right? It’s just a matter of of finding a way to serve, and in the end, that’s all businesses are. It’s finding a way to serve the community in a way that people are willing to pay us for providing the service. Whether it’s a product or the intangible. So I hope that’s answering your question. I hope that resonates.
Yes sir. Resonates, I tell you, I do these things. I try to keep in mind, I’m doing, I’m serving, I want to serve. But when I do this and I hear somebody like you give me these golden nuggets, everything that came out of your mouth was pretty much a little nugget.
It’s not new stuff, but it reinforces what I’ve learned. I’m a little bit selfish to say this doesn’t help anybody but me, that I’ve accomplished my goal for the day. Thank you very much for your time, Gayle.
I appreciate you taking the time to let me talk. Oh, before you leave, I want to bring your attention to a couple of things. On the 19th of September, some of my colleagues and I are going to be doing a morning event called an eyeopener series leader shift.
Moving from being the leader to growing leaders, and you’re going to cut this and edit it, but there’s an event coming up on the 19th of October as well, which is going to deal with story and how we use story to lead. So, pay attention to storytellerschannel.com there’ll be events posted there to let you know what’s going on or, look on Eventbrite. You can probably just search for Gayle Turner and something might come up. That’s G-A-Y-L-E T-U-R-N-E-R storytellerschannel.com.