Kerri Garbis of Ovation: Emotional Intelligence; What It Is, Why It Is So Essential, And How We Can Increase It

Parveen Panwar, Mr. Activated
Authority Magazine
Published in
14 min readFeb 19, 2021


Identify your triggers. Most of us know our “buttons.” We know what puts us in a bad mood. If you accidentally call me Kelly, you’ll see my button pushed first-hand. But what about the other kind of buttons? The positive ones? Can you rattle off a handful of things that put you in a positive, productive mindset? If not, get to work! By the way, one of mine is the scent of cinnamon so send any cinnamon-scented items my way. Thanks in advance!

As a part of our series about Emotional Intelligence, I had the pleasure of interviewing Kerri Garbis.

Kerri is the CEO and founder of Ovation. She has successfully run her company virtually since day one, building and maintaining relationships in a virtual environment for well over a decade. A professional actress since childhood, her company offers transformative Professional Presence and Speaker Development training, helping business professionals all over the world get prepared, get confident, and get Ovation!

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive into the main focus of our interview, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?

I grew up in Baltimore, Maryland, and wanted to be an actress since I was five years old. I was lucky enough to embrace that passion early on and got my first professional job at thirteen. My Mother drove me all around the state for auditions. My formal training began at The Baltimore School for the Arts, where I became a better artist and human. Being immersed in that diverse community of mega-talented teens and faculty was the best education and life experience any young artist could ask for. From there I continued working and received my BFA from Syracuse University in Musical Theatre.

What or who inspired you to pursue your career? We’d love to hear the story.

I often refer to myself as an “accidental entrepreneur” because all I ever wanted to be was an actor and only an actor. But after living job-to-job for almost twenty years, my now husband encouraged me to take a break and try sales; he thought I’d be terrific. At the time, I thought sales meant working at a mall and knew nothing about the world of business. He was the one who encouraged me to grow the idea of Ovation into a full-blown enterprise.

None of us can achieve success without some help along the way. Was there a particular person who you feel gave you the most help or encouragement to be who you are today? Can you share a story about that?

The person I am today is an amalgamation of everything I’ve ever experienced. I cannot point to one particular person because there were just so many people, from elementary school to post-undergrad, that encouraged me along the way. I do give a lot of credit to my father, who is a federal judge. And while we do have very different vocations, I grew up around a tremendous example of work ethic, dedication, and on-stage presence — given how he performed in a legal setting. He was also extremely helpful and encouraging and supportive when I started my own business.

When I was twelve years old, I accompanied my father on a business trip to Germany. He had a speaking engagement, and I remember sitting in the front row throughout the evening of presentations. Except for my father’s speech, everything I sat through that day was in German, and I only knew about three words of the language. So, I couldn’t understand anything that was actually being said, but I got the gist of what they were talking about. I found it fascinating that when the speaker would stop, and people would laugh — even though I didn’t understand the words of what they were saying — I could laugh along too because I knew just from the cadence of the speaker’s voice and their body language what they were expressing. That experience led me to understand that so much of how humans express themselves is less about the words that come out of their mouth and more about what their body and voice does. That really stuck with me, and I never would’ve had exposure to that in a professional setting at an early age without my father.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting mistake that occurred to you in the course of your career? What lesson or take away did you learn from that?

In the early days of Ovation, I was doing a lot of the training myself. I was at a client’s office in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin, and the building had some very rigid security protocols — I’m talking metal detectors, pat-downs, and the full nine yards. Essentially, once you’re in the building it’s a headache and a time-sink to get back out. I was carrying a lot of stuff to the workshop between books and folders, a computer, and a camera-mounted tripod. I get all my stuff from my car, go through security, and then up to where I started setting up my training for the day. As people are coming in and I’m greeting them, I turn around to check my facilitators guide, and it’s not there. The guide, with all my notes and setups for each exercise, was sitting in the passenger seat of my rental car because I had been practicing prior to the event. So, in that moment, I had to make the decision; do I tell someone to basically delay the start of class — at least probably by a good thirty minutes considering the security rigamarole — or do I just wing it and not lose any credibility. I decided to wing it because I prepared enough to run the event, however, there is a group of attendees who do not have the exact statistics on emotional intelligence in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin.

The road to success is hard and requires tremendous dedication. This question is obviously a big one, but what advice would you give to a young person who aspires to follow in your footsteps and emulate your success?

First and foremost, this journey is your own. You will never be me, the same way I will never be the people I looked up to and emulated over the years. It’s important to understand that you will be you, and your journey is your own — which is honestly the most exciting part. That’s something that took me a while to learn, often comparing myself to others, and getting to a comfort zone regarding that this is my journey, and I won’t follow in anybody’s exact footsteps, was empowering to me as an actor and a business leader. Some advice I can give is to learn from your mistakes, listen to your gut, and to lean into your expertise. You don’t have to be everything to everybody, you just have to be the best version of yourself.

Is there a particular book, film, or podcast that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

Around twelve years ago, I was at an HR conference and happened to get into a conversation with a wonderful gentleman named Jones Loflin. He’s a speaker, writer and an expert in work-life balance. We chatted over the course of two days and on the last day he gave me a copy of his book Juggling Elephants. I read that entire book on the flight home from Atlanta. To this day, I have it on my shelf, and it’s a formula for my work-life balance that I continually find myself returning to. Whenever I feel like I need a realignment, I pick up his book and it’s great. We’re still friends today, and he’s joined me as a guest on some of my webinars.

Can you share your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Why does that resonate with you so much?

This is a for-real sign I have hanging above the door in my office, and I’ve had it since I was a teenager. “Never try to teach a pig to sing. It wastes your time, and it annoys the pig.” I got this plaque as my first purchase with my own money. At the time, I got it because I collect pigs and I’m a singer — come on — it’s hilarious. Now, all these years later it still resonates with me, and actually understates the mission of my company; we’re trying to teach business professionals to be the shiniest version of themselves, not presentation robots or singing pigs.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? How do you think that might help people?

Ovation has recently launched it’s a training subscription service called Studio G. It’s essentially a gym for Professional Presence and a stress-free environment that helps people hone their Professional Presence skills. It offers one-on-one coaching, weekly group workshops, self-paced learning, and access to Bravo, our AI-driven presentation feedback tool.

Self-awareness is the cornerstone of acting and emotional intelligence. Acting is all about finding the truth within yourself, the scene, and the relationship on stage. In order to accomplish that, you have to be open and vulnerable. Once you open yourself up on stage, you become more sensitive and aware because you are totally present within the current situation. And without rehearsal, a place for people to discover the essence of their lines and develop a connection to others, it’s impossible for actors to perform under the spotlight. In the corporate world a place for rehearsal doesn’t exist. Developing a voice on your own can seem like an insurmountable task, especially without receiving any feedback. This need for a collaborative environment is what ultimately sparked the idea for Studio G.

OK, thank you for all of that. Let’s now shift to the core focus of our interview. Can you briefly tell our readers a bit about why you are an authority about Emotional Intelligence?

Emotional Intelligence is the ability to perceive, understand, reason with, and manage your emotions as well as the emotions of others — which is another way to describe what an actor does. This is part of what I feel is in my DNA. It’s also what I went to school for, and have received ongoing training in. On top of that, I’m certified as an emotional intelligence expert by Korn Ferry.

For the benefit of our readers, can you help to define what Emotional Intelligence is?

In essence of how it applies to a work setting, emotional intelligence is behaving in a way that makes work more productive, comfortable, and easier for other people. The Oxford Language dictionary defines Emotional Intelligence as “the capacity to be aware of, control, and express one’s emotions, and to handle interpersonal relationships judiciously and empathetically.” I couldn’t agree more.

How is Emotional Intelligence different from what we normally refer to as intelligence?

IQ is pretty fixed. We take a test, we get a score, and you’re in either Mensa or you’re not. One of the wonderful things about emotional intelligence is that it’s movable and can be easily improved upon. However, one of the important things to keep in mind is that an individual’s level of emotional intelligence varies depending on the situation and area of knowledge. Typically, people tend to be more emotionally intelligent in their comfort zones but practicing the fundamentals increases awareness and can make you’re a more emotionally intelligent person overall.

Can you help explain a few reasons why Emotional Intelligence is such an important characteristic? Can you share a story or give some examples?

Emotional intelligence is truly everything. People with high emotional intelligence are generally easy to work with and more productive. They’re the best friend you can call on a lousy day or that coworker you know you can depend on whenever you encounter a problem.

Would you feel comfortable sharing a story or anecdote about how Emotional Intelligence has helped you in your life? We would love to hear about it.

Here are some common examples of how emotional intelligence applies to daily situations:

Emotional intelligence is knowing how not to be a jerk. It is also knowing your limits for others’ jerkiness and understanding the possible outcomes for when you choose to be a jerk.

Emotional intelligence is understanding why you’re not good at remembering names and knowing how to work around an awkward name forgetting situation.

Emotional intelligence is navigating through the myriad of responses you may want to give when asked something irrupting, off-putting, or downright rude and responding in the way you want.

Emotional intelligence is also knowing your triggers (both negative and positive) and how to subdue on-coming amygdala highjacks (like a crazy road rage moment).

Can you share some specific examples of how Emotional Intelligence can help a person become more successful in the business world?

Emotional intelligence is at the root of building and maintaining connections in a work environment. If I could have every business professional (and human) take one thing from all my years of studying, teaching, and living through emotional intelligence, it would be the practice of empathy. For me, it’s a practice and something I work on daily. Learning to react, interact, and express oneself in an empathetic manner, is a clear path to healthy relationships and personal success. Learn it, practice it, and live it. That is the gift of emotional intelligence.

Can you share a few examples of how Emotional Intelligence can help people have better relationships?

Using emotional intelligence to build, grow, and maintain relationships is what it’s all about. When faced with a difficult situation, look at it from the emotionally intelligent point of view. Take stock of your self-awareness, observe and question social awareness, and ensure you’re in a productive mindset with self-management. Then move ahead to solve the problem or have that difficult conversation.

Can you share a few examples of how Emotional Intelligence can help people have more optimal mental health?

I want to clarify that I am not a mental health expert. I do believe that having the ability to communicate with others clearly can help prevent miscommunications and help people feel more seen when they speak.

Ok. Wonderful. Here is the main question of our interview. Can you recommend five things that anyone can do to develop a greater degree of Emotional Intelligence? Please share a story or example for each.

  1. Name, don’t label, your emotions. Make it a practice to identify your mood often. Give the emotion a name that truly represents how you are feeling. Something more than fine, good, or meh. How about incensed, joyous, or welcomed? And avoid labeling emotions as good or bad. That’s not productive. What you feel is what you feel. A first step towards your self-awareness is giving every emotion a name.
  2. Notice how those emotions affect you. Does your grumpy mood show all over your face? If you don’t want to be there, do you immediately cross your arms? Do you cry when something is super funny? Maybe that’s just me. Getting to know what happens to you when you feel certain emotions is the first step towards controlling them.
  3. Work your observation muscles. Go out in public and observe — a park, a coffee shop, on the train. See what story you create in your mind by watching. Can you tell what those two are talking about just based on their body language? Can you guess how the lady in line is feeling by only looking at her face? Or if you’re living through a pandemic and everyone is wearing a mask, and you don’t want to go out in public, turn on the TV and mute the sound. Do your social sleuthing by watching a scene or two from a movie and taking stock of what you notice.
  4. Question your observations. After you’ve made some fantastic assumptions about people and their lives, look at those situations again. What else could be going on? Could they be feigning a reaction or masking their true feelings? Ask yourself, why was your initial observation that observation? What experience or unconscious bias are you bringing with you into your social awareness?
  5. Identify your triggers. Most of us know our “buttons.” We know what puts us in a bad mood. If you accidentally call me Kelly, you’ll see my button pushed first-hand. But what about the other kind of buttons? The positive ones? Can you rattle off a handful of things that put you in a positive, productive mindset? If not, get to work! By the way, one of mine is the scent of cinnamon so send any cinnamon-scented items my way. Thanks in advance!
  6. Find and use your tools. We can get riled up and make choices that ruffle relationships when our amygdala takes over our brain and we explode. Find some go-to things you can do quickly and in the moment that will activate other parts of your brain and help you stay calm. Making any physical or cognitive change will do the trick. That’s why breathing and counting to ten is so popular. For a quicker, more robust result, stand up and take a walk or think through a difficult math problem or ratios for a complicated recipe.

Oops, that was 6. I couldn’t stop at 5!

Do you think our educational system can do a better job at cultivating Emotional Intelligence? What specific recommendations would you make for schools to help students cultivate Emotional Intelligence?

The most powerful thing any school could do to help students cultivate emotional intelligence would be to offer — or continue offering — arts education like music, drama, and visual arts. These classes start to build self-awareness and self-expression, the cornerstone of emotional intelligence. Arts, empathy, and emotional intelligence are all tied together and feed off of each other in terms of growth.

Ok, we are nearly done. You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

If I could inspire a movement, it would center around mindfulness. Our busy world leaves people with little time for reflection, and it’s something that’s as important to our mind and bodies as sleep. Changing our habits as individuals and creating practices within institutions that cultivate self-awareness would have a hugely positive effect on society. We all want to live in an empathetic world, and the best way to manifest that reality is by paying it forward. The path to self-realization is revealed by mindfulness; people can only gain a better picture of who they really are when they stop and consider the influences behind their behavior. Now imagine what would happen to our culture if we whole-heartedly embraced that principle.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we both tag them :-)

Giada De Laurentiis has always inspired me. It would be an absolute dream to have her over to my house so I could cook with her. As someone who is passionate about cooking and hosting dinner parties, to be able to see her cook in my kitchen and see what she does with my setup would be mind-blowing. I only know her public persona, but I’d love to chat with her about her business ventures, being a mom, and how she expresses herself through food.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

I’m always posting helpful content on Facebook and LinkedIn. Searching my name on either of those platforms will quickly bring you to my page. You can also check out everything going on with my company at!

Thank you for these really excellent insights, and we greatly appreciate the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success.



Parveen Panwar, Mr. Activated
Authority Magazine

Entrepreneur, angel investor and syndicated columnist, as well as a yoga, holistic health, breathwork and meditation enthusiast. Unlock the deepest powers