Book Interview: Garth Japhet – Like Water Is For Fish, Or Soul Stories

May 2, 2021

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Drawing from his deeply personal experience of the power stories, Heartlines CEO Dr Garth Japhet’s debut book Like Water Is For Fish is a testimony to the ways stories shape our lives, influence our choices and add colour to our world. Japhet discusses the background to the book.


The power of story in shaping individual paradigms: part of the reason you became a doctor was the impact of a series of books about a doctor, but you must have heard and read many other stories that resonated with you as you grew up. What did that particular narrative excite in you?

I think it felt so heroic and as an insecure young boy I longed to be a hero!


Is a romantic notion (the heroism of a jungle doctor in this case) an especially powerful mechanism in storytelling (more so than common sense)?

Absolutely. I mention in the book that many stories that work best follow the narrative structure of the ‘hero’s journey’ – a term made famous by the writer John Campbell in his 1949 book The Hero With A Thousand Faces. A character goes on a journey, comes up against trials and tribulations and triumphs, despite the odds, ending the journey changed.


Does exposure to a greater number of stories provide greater potential for inspiration or a greater likelihood of confusion?

It depends who you are. For me it’s inspiration. I think that we discard stories that do not resonate with us.


Soul City and Soul Buddyz involve, in some ways, the allocation of agency to viewers in terms of making decisions about the topics being examined: characters reflect rather than lecture. How important was figuring out the tone of delivery in that regard?

Hugely important. One of the key things we found in our evaluations was that people would consistently say “ in the programmes we see ourselves”. This is as a direct result of the research and proves what works with representatives of our target audience throughout the creative process. By the time we go into production, we know that there will be this resonance – which is critical for the change process.


You mention the research process behind these series in the book – how layered was that process, from finding out what topics were important at which times to refining which characters carried more authority in terms of delivering a message?

Once we decide on the topic, we do three things. We do a literature review, meet with experts and get their info, then, most importantly, we set up focus groups to understand from the people we want to reach what their perceptions are. We look for knowledge gaps and, most particularly, obstacles to change. We take all this info and combine it into a briefing document, and this becomes the foundation for the resources, the films, the radio programmes and so on. We then test scripts with audiences to check for resonance, unintended messages and engagement.


Success as a burden: once something as far-reaching as Soul City is established and genuinely making a difference, how does that change your/the organisation’s mindset? For a commercial enterprise, success can just mean making money, but here there is emotional and psychological currency at stake.

Yes. What is difficult is to keep on producing interventions that will resonate and be popular while following communication and media trends. Once successful, you have to try and keep up! One problem with this type of work is that success does not necessarily translate into funding. For me, the challenge was the difference of managing an agile organisation with 15 people versus the bureaucracy of 150 people in 10 countries.


The importance of relationships in adding value to stories or providing a safe space for them to be told: in the book, many of the people you interview are friends with whom a level of trust has been established – is encouraging the development of relationships an important pillar of your/Soul City’s/Heartline’s processes and, given the complexities involved, how does that work?

I think so. I think it comes down to trustworthiness as people and as an organisation. Trust is built over time. It can be destroyed in a heartbeat, but it is the key currency that I/we have used to build relationships and the organisation. I think because people trust me/us, they are more comfortable that we won’t throw them under a bus.


One constant thread in the book is how you, with your admitted challenges (anxiety, depression), begin and drive powerful campaigns to completion. What have you found are the major components in getting that done: stubbornness, fear of failure, ambition, being a good vocational fit?

I often say that I am too dumb to know when I am beaten. Which is partially true, but perhaps the answer is a combination of stubbornness and fear of failure. I have vision, which is a two-edged sword. I need to have a plan to work towards. If the plan crumbles, a void opens up because I can’t see forward. I think fear of the void keeps me keeping on unless a new plan arises.


An important aspect in expanding the influence of a message or a campaign is being able to confidently delegate (particularly if you, as the entrepreneur with the vision, are not a filmmaker or an accountant or whatever is required to sort out a specific project). The teams involved in different aspects of Soul City/Buddyz and Heartlines over the years have included some incredible people from all parts of the wealth, race, experience and training spectrum. How have you learned to recognise excellence? And how have your colleagues helped you to improve at what you do as time has passed?

My colleagues are the reason for any successes we may have had. I have been incredibly fortunate that the right people have come across my path at the right time. I am also fortunate in that I don’t hold things too tightly, which I think gives people the ability to take ownership. I am fortunate to know what I don’t know and draw on  the skills and learn from people that do. I am also quite vulnerable with my colleagues, which I think builds team spirit and trust. I also have little desire for personal promotion, which allows me to lead from behind. This means that, by and large, my colleagues have felt that Soul City and Heartlines are not my personal fiefdom, but are shared – I hope!


Like Water Is For Fish has allowed readers to more fully understand your personal story and the effect it has had (intentional or otherwise to begin with) on South Africa. What other as yet untold South African stories do you feel would be beneficial for all of us to hear?

Phew. So many. Especially men. I think that there is a crisis of manhood – what does it mean?

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