Every year over 11,000 business books are published. Only a tiny sliver of those books are what I would call “real books”, that is, books that talk meaningfully and authentically about a subject in a coherent way. (Most of them are compilations of tired business platitudes, aimed at selling the author’s consultant services.)
A real book
One of the very few business books that is also a “real book” that I have come across recently is Peter Guber’s new book, Tell to Win. It’s a book about how important storytelling has been in Peter’s life. Peter has an amazing set of stories to tell: how he grew up in New York, went to Hollywood, became a big shot producer with films like Batman, Rain Man and Gorillas in the Mist, and is now the owner of an NBA team in San Francisco.
If you looked closely this last Sunday night, you could have seen Peter and his wife at the Oscar ceremony as one of the producers of the Oscar-nominated film, The Kids Are All Right.
In telling the many stories that make up his life, Peter also tells the story of storytelling. What makes this engaging is that Peter, despite his successes, doesn’t take himself too seriously. Many of the stories in the book are less about his brilliant successes, of which there are many, and more about the illuminating stumbles that inevitably occur as one makes one’s way through life.
Meeting the King of Thailand
One of my favorites is about when he was making a film in Thailand and had to see the king in order to obtain permission for what he was doing. So he followed his own advice and practiced, practiced, practiced his story to tell to the king and when he arrived at the palace he felt he was ready. When he saw the king, he taken aback at how impressively the king was dressed. He began his spiel and felt his assistant pulling on his sleeve. He ignored this and pressed ahead with his spiel. Finally, his assistant whispered in his ear, “Peter, that’s not the king. That’s the usher.”
The emotional transportation business
Peter sees himself as being in the emotional transportation business. His book shows how success is won by telling compelling stories that have the power to move partners, shareholders, customers and employees to action. As he says, if you can't tell it, you can't sell it!
The book is already #1 on Amazon. So it doesn’t need any help from me in promoting it. But if you are interested in buying it, you can order it now and get a set of digital gifts here.
Recently I put some questions to Peter about his book and he answered as follows:
1. How has purposeful story telling been central to your career?
Both telling stories for entertainment (film, TV, miniseries, etc.) and telling purposeful stories to propel my business goals (buying and selling sports teams, new media companies, real estate ventures) have been “the secret sauce” behind my career success. The seminal elements of what makes a story great are the same whether we’re talking about story content for a movie such as Rain Man, or story content used in the room, face to face to propel the success of a deal such as acquiring an NBA franchise, securing intellectual property rights to a great estate like Frank Sinatra, becoming CEO of a corporation like Sony Pictures Entertainment, or raising money for a university like UCLA.
2. What's your favorite example of a story well told that helped you get ahead?
It was how as CEO of Columbia Pictures just after it was purchased by Sony, I told the story of Lawrence of Arabia to inspire my employees to reclaim their heritage and pull together. Ironically, this was the studio that made the movie 40 years earlier.
3. In what kinds of situations in business will the power of telling a purposeful story be most useful?
In any situation that calls for you to persuade, convince or manage someone or a group of people to do something, the ability to tell a purposeful story will be your secret sauce. Telling to win through purposeful stories is situation, industry, gender, demographic, and psychographic-agnostic. It’s an all-purpose, everyone wins tool.
4. Why has the need for telling to win increased?
In today’s roller-coaster economy, hyper-competitive, fear-based, flat and global world, convincing anyone to do anything at any time requires getting their attention, creating their intention and turning it to action. This means you have to render an experience. And telling purposeful stories in the room, face to face cuts through the cacophony in both turbulent and triumphant times.
5. What did your research about telling stories uncover that most surprised you?
As a guest professor with me at the graduate course at UCLA, titled Navigating a Narrative World, Marco Iacoboni, Professor of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences at UCLA, provided one of the most surprising insights behind the power of telling a purposeful story. Iacobani is a pioneer in the research of mirror neurons. Mirror neurons allow us to read each other, both functionally and emotionally, as if both the teller and listener are entering and living each other’s experience. They make it possible for the teller and listener to imitate, learn, and intuit each other’s goals through feelings of empathy and connection. Iacobani explained that when one tells a purposeful story in the room, face to face, they evoke the mirror neuron system of their listener to feel what they are feeling in their tell and thus mirror the same intentions. A truly empathetic and powerful experience!
6. What are the essential elements of a purposeful story?
Tell to Win reveals the key elements that tellers of purposeful stories utilize to engage their listener(s) and turn them into viral advocates of the tellers’ goals. Purposeful stories have a goal, a call to action that tellers want their listeners to do. But, before tellers motivate their listeners, the teller, him or herself, must first be motivated. This means he or she must be authentic and congruent. The tellers’ story must not just be interesting, but demonstrate that the tellers are interested in what is interesting to their audience if they want to capture and retain their audience’s attention. Purposeful story tellers must engage the listener(s) in a dialog. Telling purposeful stories is interactive. It’s not a monolog. Ultimately, purposeful tellers must surrender control of their stories, creating a gap for the listener(s) to willingly cross in order to take ownership. Only when the listener(s) own the tellers’ story and make it theirs, will they virally market it.
7. What's the simplest way we can start applying telling purposeful stories to our own lives right away?
Practice. Practice. Practice. You will tap into your inherent resource. Be clear to yourself about what your intention is, that you want to be heard and felt and what you want as your goal, i.e., what you want your listener to do upon hearing and feeling your story. Be sure to know what your audience is interested in rather than trying to be interesting, and set your content in a context that is important to them. Let your authenticity and congruence shine through your story, turning “me to we,” in the process. Embed the important facts and information inside your story while rendering an emotionally resonant experience. Hits are born in the heart or gut and then migrate to the mind. Aim there. Only then will your listener(s) own your goal as theirs and act on it.
The meaning of storytelling
What’s interesting to me is that ten years ago, ten years ago, storytelling was nowhere on the radar of the business world. Clever people were using stories to be successful, but no one was explaining how it was done. Now you have books like Peter’s book, Tell to Win, that take you behind the screen and reveal the secrets of what it takes to tell a winning story.
As we look more broadly now at the revolution going on in management around the world, as organizations shift from traditional management to radical management, it is becoming steadily more apparent that one of the key ingredients in the revolution is an ability to communicate authentically with their customers or their employees. Storytelling is not just a nice additional capability to have. It’s become one of the basics.
To learn more
Peter and I will be appearing together on a discussion panel at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco on the evening of April 21, 2011, talking about his book, Tell to Win, and the second edition of my 2005 book, The Leader's Guide to Storytelling, which is also being published this month.