Movie producer Peter Guber paused for a moment outside the closed door of Warner Bros. CEO Terry Semel‘s office. 

Peter was ready to start filming Gorillas in the Mist, a project he had invested three years in developing, a true story about the renowned primatologist Dian Fossey, who studied, lived among, and ultimately died to protect the last surviving silverback mountain gorillas.   

Peter had heard through the grapevine Terry was going to drop the ax and cancel the project.  

Peter reminded himself not to give the appearance of surrender.  He stood tall and focused on conveying the certainty and energy his mission required.  To change Terry’s mind, Peter knew he had to move Terry emotionally. 

It was now or never. 

This week we are exploring the power of storytelling to impact business results as detailed in Peter Guber’s terrific book Tell to Win: Connect, Persuade, and Triumph with the Hidden Power of Story.  Previously we’ve looked at how we can shape our raw material, identify our hero, and make sure our story is emotionally moving.  Now we focus on how to deliver our story so it makes the desired impact.  

Peter opened the door, looked at Terry and said, “Someone’s killing your relatives.”

“What?” Terry shot back a look of alarm.  Peter knew he had corralled Terry’s attention and aroused his curiosity.

“Your relatives are minding their own business, raising their families in the only home they’ve ever known, where their ancestors have lived for millennia.  They’re defenseless innocents, among the most beautiful creatures you’ll ever see,” Peter explained.  “These silverback gorillas, the lead characters of our film, are only two clicks away from us in the gene pool.  But… they are under attack by murderers who shoot them through the heart and cut off their hands and feet as trophies.”

Peter handed Terry a stack of photos showing the atrocities he had just described, including a photo of an ashtray made from a gorilla paw.

“They are selling these on the streets of Rwanda,” Peter shared.  “The only consolation is that our movie, while centered on the heroic tragedy of Dian Fossey, would spread the message that this is happening and bring new recruits to the silverback cause.”

Terry studied the pictures.  Peter knew he needed to show he understood and respected Terry’s challenge, the financial risks this production would run.  It didn’t help that several years earlier Terry had greenlit Greystoke, an over-budget, box office bomb featuring actors in monkey suits playing gorillas.

Greystoke had taught Peter how not to make the film.  Peter’s movie would tell the true story of a real endangered species.

“The gorillas are writing the script,” Peter told Terry.  His team had already shot many hours of footage in Africa. 

“We’re just adapting the dialog and the material to the stories the silverbacks have already acted out.”

Terry stood up.  “Let me think about it.  I have another meeting,” he said telling his assistant to send in the next visitor.
Peter writes: “Now that I’d gotten this far, I didn’t dare leave without an answer.  It was time to drop my script and improvise.”

Peter dropped to the floor and lay down, his arms and legs outstretched.

Terry frowned: “What’s the matter?”

“I’m a wounded gorilla.  If you’re going to say no, it’s to them, too.  Here and now.”

This was risky business, Peter writes.  “I looked foolish and vulnerable.  But as over-the-top as this move seemed, it also demonstrated how much I was willing to put on the line to achieve my goal.”

This was a calculated risk.  Peter was pressing Terry to become an active participant.

The new guest walked in and stared at Peter on the floor.  “What’s his problem?”

“He’s a gorilla.” Terry tried to keep a straight face, but burst out laughing.  “He wants me to save him.”  The guest started laughing, too.

Terry paused.

“OK, we’ll make our picture.”

Peter jumped to his feet and exited before Terry could change his mind.  

Peter’s story contains many elements of how we can “tell to win.”  We will be exploring these lessons this week.

And Gorillas in the Mist?

It was nominated for five Academy Awards, including Best Actress and Best Screenplay.  Not only did it become a long-term creative and financial success, but also brought global attention to the plight of the silverbacks.  Twenty years later, their habitat is protected and their numbers are increasing. 

Reflection:  What stands out the most in the story above?  Why did Terry Semel change his mind and decide to make the picture?

Action:  Apply one of Peter’s techniques in an upcoming high stakes negotiation.

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