It’s the early 1990s.  Dr. Robert Maloney, UCLA professor of ophthalmology, had just done the first LASIK surgery in western North America as part of the original FDA clinical trials.  The surgery was a success and Robert realized LASIK had the potential to improve the eye sight of millions of people.

But potential patients were worried.    

It was a brand new procedure.  So much could go wrong.

Robert’s credentials were impeccable.  He was a Rhodes scholar and summa cum laude graduate from Harvard.  One approach would be to dazzle potential patients with his expertise and the latest academic research.

That’s not what he did.

By listening closely to his patients, Robert discovered what they actually cared about most was trust.  

They weren’t looking for guarantees.  They wanted reassurance.

So, without changing the facts to enable them to make an informed medical decision, he began telling his patients: “I’m going to take care of you.  I’m never giving up on you.  Even if there is a problem, we’re in this together, walking side by side.”

Robert’s story was one of relationship and friendship.

This week we are exploring some of the key lessons from Tell to Win, Peter Guber’s terrific book on storytelling.  We are looking at the importance of preparation.  How do we figure out what story we should tell?

Knowing our audience is essential.

Peter tells us the word “audience” is deliberate here.  What matters most is the emotional experience we are rendering.  To connect with their emotions, we must figure out a way to grab their attention.  

What we learn about our audience will determine how we tell our story.  What is their age, gender, education, personality?  Where do they live?  Where do they come from?  

Most important: What do they want and what do they need?

Knowing the answers to these questions allows us to tailor a story that will achieve our goals.

Depending on who is in the audience, each telling of our story may be different.

Gentry Lee is the Chief Engineer at Jet Propulsion Laboratory.  Gentry’s sales tool of choice is always telling to win.  The key to telling a story that resonates with our audience, Gentry tells us, is understanding their values: “Frame your story to hit those emotional chords.”

Sometimes the most resonant chord is fear.

One of Gentry’s most important responsibilities is talking to Congress to secure funding for JPL’s interplanetary robotic missions.  

“People are afraid of the future, so if I can show that what we learn through interplanetary exploration will reduce their uncertainty about the future, then they’ll get why they should support our mission.”

How does Gentry persuade a U.S. Representative to support a Mission to Mars?  

“Once upon a time, Mars was a lush planet with a climate a lot like ours.  It had air and water and possibly life.  But now it’s barren.  Why?  What happened? Could the same fate be in our future on Earth?  Could our findings on Mars help us redirect our manifest destiny and save our planet?  Let’s go there together and find out.”

Another of Gentry’s responsibilities is inspiring the next generation of astrophysicists.

When talking to them, he might tell the same story, but this time with an emphasis on curiosity and a sense of adventure rather than fear: “I believe we are going to find an Earth-like planet close enough that a multi-generational spacecraft could get there.  Wouldn’t you want to be part of that story?”

In order to “tell to win,” we must first understand our audience and what they care about.  


Reflection:  Consider the decision-maker(s) for an upcoming important initiative.  What do they want and what do they need?

Action:  Journal about it.  Prepare a story that calls them to action.

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