Surrendering control

It was 2002.  Tom Werner and his partners had just purchased the Boston Red Sox.  

“This was the oldest club in the majors, and we played at the oldest stadium in the country – Fenway Park,” Tom recalls in Peter Guber‘s Tell to Win.  “There was immediate pressure that Fenway Park had outlived its usefulness and needed to be torn down.  After all, it was built in 1912, it was cramped… People were saying, ‘You need to tear down the park.’  And of course, we’re in the business to make a profit, and we’d paid $380 million for this franchise.”

Building a new stadium would mean vastly more revenue, not only ticket sales, but merchandise, food, advertising, and high priced suites.  And, the new owners would also be able to sell the corporate naming rights to a new stadium.  At the time, Coca Cola had just paid $161 million to name the new Houston Astros stadium Minute Maid Park.

“The pressure was compounded by the general trend among sports franchise owners to move major clubs out of aging urban stadiums and into state-of-the-art entertainment palaces,” Tom remembers.  There was even precedent in Boston: the legendary Boston Garden, home of the Bruins and Celtics, had been razed and replaced by the uber-successful Fleet Center in the heart of the city. 

Still, it was a difficult decision.  Many diehard Red Sox fans told Tom if he destroyed Fenway, he would be destroying part of their life story.  “One of the things that binds people in Boston to Fenway are the stories retold of family experiences.  My grandfather took me to my first game in Fenway Park, and my father and I went to games in Fenway Park,” Tom said. 

Fenway was no ordinary baseball park.  It was home of the Green Monster, the fabled 37-foot high wall in left field.  It was where Babe Ruth had pitched before being traded to the hated New York Yankees, triggering the “Curse of the Bambino” (Babe’s nickname) which had supposedly prevented the Red Sox from winning the World Series for 80+ years, which was ongoing at the time Tom and his partners purchased the team.  Fenway was where in the last inning of his last game Ted Williams had hit a home run. 

“It must have been a hard call,” said Peter.

“You can’t imagine,” Tom recalls.

On Father’s Day that year, the Red Sox were playing out of town, so the team invited fans to come to ballpark and play catch with their sons and daughters.  

“We had to stop at 25,000 people!  They had never been on the field at Fenway Park.  They were so happy,” Tom recalls.  “They touched the Green Monster like it was the Wailing Wall.  They picked up little pieces of sod and put them in their pockets as if it were moon dust!  

“And that’s when it hit me that Fenway was a true icon not just for the Red Sox but for all of Boston.  It would have been sacrilege to tear it down!”

The decision was made not to destroy the storied old park, but to rebuild it.

“I learned that if we tore the stadium down, the essence of our original story, which had endured for a hundred years, would die with it.  We’d have to start all over, the new story could never have the value, breadth, or depth of the old one,” Tom remarked.  “The ballpark is by far the most valuable element of the Red Sox story, because it will survive all of us – as long as we tend it well.  My job, I realized, was to protect and refuel the flame of Fenway to insure our core story was never ending.

The renovation was designed to heighten – not simply preserve – Fenway’s destination appeal.  It was done in a way that fans could participate in the story of Fenway’s transformation.  “For the first time, we added seats above the Green Monster,” said Tom.  

The new owners closed off the street in front of the ballpark two hours before game time and created a carnival atmosphere – Yawkey Way.  “Now people come to Fenway Park two hours earlier in anticipation of the next story, and not only is that great for their experience, but we’re selling concessions to fans two hours earlier!”

Another addition?  Tom introduced a T-shirt that read, “Everyone can have a bad century.”

“It wasn’t about nostalgia, it was about creating a destination, so that if the team lost, which we do from time to time, then people would still feel like they had a special experience.”  

So, what does Fenway’s renovation have to do with you and me?

“The challenge of directing new iterations of the Fenway story is not that different from the challenge facing any teller of a large and well-established product or organizational story,” Peter observes.  “We live at such a pace right now that even the strongest story has to change to endure.

In business, with our brand, with our organization, and with our teams, we need to preserve the essence of our story while finding ways to tell it into the future.  Making it a never ending story.  

“You’ve got to protect the essential elements while constantly adapting to change,” Tom says.  “That requires a sure touch, but also a light touch.

“In Boston, Fenway Park is the enduring star.  Managers and fans come and go, players get traded in and out, but this ballpark is like the flame that keeps the story alive.”

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Reflection:  Reflect on a time when I participated or led an effort to re-energize an existing organization, product or service?  How did I weave together elements from the past and the envisioned future?

Action:  What action could I take to help create a “never ending story”?

Is Zoom our friend?

Yes.  

It’s been a life-saver, certainly a business-saver for many of us over the past year as we’ve adapted and learned to communicate virtually.

So, what happens when the pandemic begins to fade?  What happens when once again we have the option to travel and communicate in person?

Will things go back to how they were pre-pandemic?

Highly unlikely.

And yet, in-person, face-to-face communication will likely still play an important role.

In his book Tell to Win, entertainment titan Peter Guber shares his belief about the power of communicating person-to-person.  Heartfelt connection often depends on infinitesimal and interpersonal nuances. 

“With someone face to face, you react in your gut — your enteric nervous system gives you a visceral read on the other person,” Peter quotes Chris Kemp, Chairman and CEO of Astra and formerly Chief Technology Officer of NASA. 

“It’s a holdover from our primitive ancestors who had to size up a stranger instantly to determine whether to trust him, fight him, or flee for their lives,” Chris says.  “You don’t get this response with technology because your body knows you’re talking to a screen.”

What’s missing in virtual communication is body language and micro-expressions.

We are wired to read one another’s “micro expressions” – involuntary facial expressions that occur as fast as one twenty-fifth of a second, says Michael Wesch, a Kansas State University cultural anthropologist who’d been dubbed “the explainer” by Wired magazine.  

These microscopic expressions signal the seven universal emotions: disgust, anger, fear, sadness, happiness, surprise, and contempt.  

“The face makes more than four thousand different expressions, and they’re subtle but critical because we subconsciously pick up on them and react to them,” Michael tells us.  “Because they’re encoded in our facial muscles, “these signals are very difficult, if not impossible, to fake, and we rely on them heavily in high-stakes situations such as business negotiations.  

“Both the mind and the heart recognize these signals, but current technology is not yet fully successful in conveying or duplicating them.”

When the stakes are high, if it’s an option, Peter believes in being there in person: “Distance inevitably puts me at a disadvantage.  That’s why, when it really matters, I walk, drive, or fly, if necessary, to be in the same room with my employees, shareholders, investors, customers, and business partners.

“The micro-expressions that Michael describes – the pauses, eye contact, body language, and gestures we make while in the room – invariably lose some or all of their impact when told from a distance using current media,” Peter writes.

“You want your audience to feel ‘I want to invest in you.  I get your story,'” Peter says.  “How do you make they them feel good about you?  By tapping into their empathy and engaging their interest.  The best possible way to do that is in person.”

When the stakes are high, there is real benefit to being in person.

“If there’s something incredibly important on which everything depends, you always want to be in the room,” says Arianna Huffington, founder of the Huffington Post and Thrive Global

“The more time we spend in front of screens, the more we crave human contact,” she says.  “I believe that intimate in-person interactions where we tell stories to realize our ambitions, goals, and dreams will only intensify as technology expands.”

The best approach according to Peter?

“The best strategy is to be ambidextrous, employing a “tell to win” philosophy to live, play, learn, and succeed in both worlds.”

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Reflection:  Thinking ahead to when in-person meetings are a possibility, what factors will I use to determine whether it is best to communicate face-to-face or virtually?

Action:  Journal about my answer to the question above.

How a Swiss Army Knife Won the Day

In the office of Dr. Robert Maloney is a basket containing hundreds of pairs of discarded eyeglasses.

A sign with the word “See” is hung above the basket.

Robert is one of the early surgeons to pioneer LASIK surgery.  Words are not the only, or often the best, tool we as communicators have to deliver our message.

In addition to focusing on what we say, we are wise to consider how a prop can help us make our point, Peter Guber, former CEO of Sony Pictures Entertainment tells us in his powerful book Tell to Win.

Peter had been invited to a lunch with former President Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev.  Peter recognized the event as an opportunity to open a dialog about bringing Sony’s Loews theater chain into Russia.

Peter remembered reading that as a boy President Reagan had cherished his Swiss Army knife.  Peter thought it possible or even likely that Gorbachev might also have had one of the knives growing up.

So, at the start of the meeting, he presented each leader with a specially designed, engraved silver Swiss Army knife. 

Peter’s intuition was this prop would create an emotional connection by prompting these two leaders to share stories from their youth.  

He was right.  The knives served as a common reference point that leveled the emotional playing field.

After the meeting, Gorbachev personally vouched for Peter and directed him to the appropriate people in Russia to discuss the expansion of Sony’s theater chain. 

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Reflection:  When in the past have I used a prop to help deliver my message?

Action: Look for an opportunity today to use a prop to communicate my message.

Are actions louder than words?

Peter Guber had just been named the head of Columbia Pictures.  It was an exciting day. 

Or, was it?

Peter who was only a couple of years out of business school.   Every other person on the senior management team was at least thirty years older than Peter.  They seemed loathe to accept him as their leader given his youth and inexperience, Peter remembers in Tell to Win, his powerful book on how we can use storytelling to achieve our business goals.

The morning after his promotion, he called a meeting of the other senior leaders and took a seat at the side of the table, where he had always sat previously.  

As the other leaders filed into the room they saw the head of the large conference table remained empty.

“Without speaking, my actions were telling a story that I’d come with respect and humility.  I was telling them I wanted to lead, but I understood I was young and that my authority had to be earned.  Not until I earned my leadership would I take a seat at the head of the table,” Peter writes.  “We were all in this together.”

The mood in the room immediately lightened.  Peter’s move captured their attention by violating expectations, one of the most powerful tools in our communication tool belt. 

The key to capturing the audience’s attention?  First pay attention to them, Peter tells us.  

Anticipate their mindset.  

If we pay attention to them, they’ll pay attention to us.  

How?

The best way is nonverbal signals.  Make eye contact.  Smile.  If appropriate, shake hands or touch someone on the shoulder.  We can animate our voice, raising and lowering it as an actor might.  Engage people’s curiosity.  Stretch the silence, especially after making an important point.  When we speak switch in a quieter tone, people are forced to listen harder. We can increase or decrease our tempo, as David Copperfield does.  We can single a person out for dialog.  

Being intentional about our posture, our smile, our gestures, our energy can have a magical effect on our audience because if makes them feel as if they are engaged in the conversation, part of the story, with a stake in the outcome.

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Reflection:  Why did Peter choosing not to sit at the head of the table work?

Action: Look for an opportunity today to violate expectations.

Why successful stories don’t always follow the script

Ever been in the audience where the speaker has lost their audience?

And, just keeps going with the prepared remarks?

How does it feel?

Bored?  Anxious?  Wanting to escape?

As a communicator, sometimes the situation calls for us to improvise, Peter Guber tells us in Tell to Win: Connect, Persuade, and Triumph with the Hidden Power of Story.  We always have the option to capitalize on the energy, signals, cues, or props in the room.  When we do, we can often right the ship and re-engage our audience.

When Peter was CEO of Polygram, he launched a television series called Oceanquest.  A team of former Navy SEAL divers and the reigning Miss Universe Sean Weatherly traveled around the world filming underwater adventures from the Truk Lagoon to the icy waters in Antarctica.  

One location they targeted was the forbidden waters of Havana Harbor where pirate ships from as far back as the sixteenth century lay on the ocean floor.  

Peter received permission to film from the US government, but Cuban officials were slow to respond.  “Millions of dollars and the success of the whole project hung in the balance, so after weeks of being stonewalled, we gambled we could win approval more easily if we were physically on Cuban turf.  We sailed ahead into Hemingway Marina and waited for Fidel Castro’s response.”

Good news  Upon their arrival, Peter and his team learned Fidel was a scuba diver and had taken in an interest in their project.  He would be making a personal visit to see their equipment.

“‘El Jefe will be here ten minutes only,” they were told.

Peter’s team jumped into action, putting out the most sophisticated gear on the ship: underwater vehicles, diving suits, high tech cameras, and other cool equipment.  All this was on display when Fidel arrived with his entourage.  He strolled the deck, but nothing seemed to catch his attention.  Fidel glanced at his watch.  Realizing his chance was slipping away, Peter began pitching why they wanted to film in Havana Harbor.  Fidel ignored him and began moving toward the gangplank to exit.

At that moment, Sean Weatherly appeared holding a shark tooth as big as her hand from a 25-foot prehistoric shark called the megalodon.  Castro was clearly interested in the tooth, so Sean handed it to him.

Peter reset his story about the mission of their shoot into a story of the megalodon.  “As El Jefe fingered this enormous tooth, I told him how this gargantuan predator has once prowled Havana’s waters.  I folded Cuba’s ancient past into its present, tucking in anecdotes we’d unearthed about famous and controversial incidents that had occurred in Havana Harbor during its centuries as the heart of the world commerce, diplomacy, intrigue, and war.  

“I closed my story with a call to action, saying we as filmmakers wanted to create an enduring record – an artifact, if you will – that told the world the story of Cuba’s historic Havana Harbor.”  

The ten minutes stretched into four hours.  Afterwards, Fidel gave them blanket permission to shoot anywhere in the harbor they wanted.

Successful stories don’t always follow the script. 

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Reflection:  Reflect on a time when I changed direction and achieved a successful outcome.

Action:  Challenge myself to divert from my planned script the next time I’m losing my audience.

Fear and Perseverance

“I won’t let fear of a possible ‘no’ interfere with my telling,” writes Peter Guber in his terrific book Tell to Win about how we can use storytelling to achieve our business goals.

The trick is not to eliminate fear, but to use it.  We channel the adrenaline instead of resisting it.

Philosopher Brian Johnson tells us courage is not the absence of fear, but being aware of fear and choosing to act in spite of it.

Rejection is a fact of life.  “Next is the most powerful word in the English language,” says Mark Victor Hansen, co-author of the Chicken Soup for the Soul series.  He and his partner Jack Canfield were turned down 144 times before finding success.  Today, they have more than 200 titles in print and have sold more than 112 millions of copies of their books.  

Ross Perot, founder of EDS, was turned down 77 times before winning his first contract.  But that first contract was worth $4 million.  Ross went on to build a world-class organization. He sold his stake in EDS for $2.4 billion.

“Sometimes rejection can be a gift,” says Nancy Traversy, co-founder and CEO of Barefoot books, a publisher of children’s books.  In the early 2000’s, she and co-founder Tessa Strickland pitched Borders marketing executives on the idea of a Barefoot Boutique within Borders stores where parents could connect with their children through reading.

No chance, they were told.  

What resulted was a whole new way of distributing and marketing children’s books involving their biggest fans, mothers who appreciated their high-caliber books for children.  “That’s when the whole ‘living barefoot’ idea came to me,” Nancy remembers.  The publisher encouraged this network of women to tell and sell their own stories or Barefoot Books to their friends and family.  Today, the more than two thousand Barefoot Ambassadors account for more than 20% of the company’s revenue.  

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Reflection:  When in the past has rejection motivated me to do my best work?

Action:  Don’t try to eliminate fear.  Channel it into adrenaline.  Today.

Energy + Vulnerability = A Powerful Equation

If we tell a story we don’t believe in, our audience will sense it immediately.

Like intention, authenticity and energy can’t be faked.  

This week we are looking at how to best deliver our message utilizing best practices from Tell to Win, Peter Guber‘s book about storytelling.  Peter quotes Williams College professor George Marcus who has studied the role of unspoken communication in the success and failure of politicians: “If we sense the other person is phony or distracted, we’ll automatically put up our defenses, either by tuning out entirely or listening with suspicion.”  

The moment we see someone, our ancient survival system kicks in and deciphers whether this individual is friend or foe, authentic or fake, trustworthy or dangerous.  “If we see a frown or can’t meet the other person’s gaze, our guard goes up and we feel anxiety, anticipating emotional attack or rejection,” George tells us.  

The reverse is also true.  Our subconscious picks up on genuine enthusiasm and conviction.  

The lesson for when we are presenting?  

We need to let ourselves feel it instead of suppressing it  Instead of telling ourselves to relax, philosopher Brian Johnson suggests we say, “I’m excited!”

“Our success or failure is determined by our level of energy,” says television mogul Mark Burnett.  “I tell my people, ‘Much more than our creativity, our level of energy inspires the people around us.'”

When we smile and look directly into someone’s eyes, the other person begins to relax and feel more trusting.

Our body language also sends messages.  When we stand or sit up straight and look our audience in the eye, we communicate we are alert, aware, and excited.  When we slouch in our chair or lean on the podium, our audience senses we are tired.

Does this mean we can only tell an effective story when we are feeling upbeat and happy?  Not so fast, Peter tells us: “Energy takes on many different emotional forms and it’s often most compelling when combined with vulnerability.”

Keith Ferrazzi, author of Never Eat Alone tells us, “Vulnerability is one of the most underappreciated assets in business today.  Everyone has something in common with every other person.  And you won’t find those similarities if you don’t open up and expose your interests and concerns, allowing others to do likewise.”

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Reflection:  Reflect on a time when being vulnerable allowed me to connect with another person or larger audience. 

Action:  Prior to my next presentation, tell myself I’m excited!

The Product as Hero

Learning to become a great storyteller translates into business success.  

Great stories share common elements: challenge, struggle, and resolution.  And the story’s hero is the one who accepts the challenge, fights through the struggles, and achieves the resolution.

So far this week, we’ve looked at the storyteller as hero It’s Magic, the listener as hero How to Change the World, and the customer as hero The Superman Story in Reverse.  

Today, we look at the product as hero.

Our story begins with a…

Pomegranate.

It was 1986.  Lynda and Stewart Resnick had purchased 120 acres in California’s San Joaquin Valley, writes Peter Guber in Tell to Win.  The Resnick’s company Roll International was the world’s leading producer of almonds, pistachios, and clementines.  On the acreage were some trees they believed to be pistachios. 

Turns out they weren’t pistachios.  They were something called pomegranates. 

At the time, very few people knew what pomegranates were.  The Resnick’s did a little research and discovered the pomegranate had a storied past.  In ancient Persia, Egypt, India, and China, the red fruit was thought to increase strength, prevent diseases and enhance fertility.

“The heroic fruit had displayed its cancer-fighting prowess in Europe,” writes Peter, “Its picture was added to the British Medical Association’s heraldic crest in tribute.”

Interesting, thought the Resnick’s.  

Next, they funded scientific research to investigate its disease-fighting capabilities.  By 2009 they had invested $32 million on medical studies.  The storied benefits were true: pomegranate juice had a beneficial effect on prostate cancer, type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. 

“Now,” writes Peter, “they could take the history of the pomegranate and power it with proven scientific truth to tell their customers, retailers, and the media a story that made their product the hero.” 

The Resnick’s dramatically expanded their land holdings to more than eighteen thousand acres of the magical trees.  Lynda put together a world-class sales team to call on the top management of every retail supermarket chain.  They shared the historical stories about this heroic fruit that could save lives. 

“Then we let them taste this delicious juice…  We told them we’re going to put you on the list, so you get it every month,” Lynda remembers.  “And they all tried it and bought it and moved it by telling and retelling its remarkable story.”

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Reflection:  Consider a current challenge.  Is there a story I can tell that casts my product as the hero to inspire people to take action?

Action:  Tell it.

The Superman Story in Reverse

As a walk-on fullback at the University of Maryland, Kevin Plank was annoyed.  Every time he worked up a sweat, his cotton workout clothes weighed him down.  So, he created an undershirt made out of women’s lingerie fabric that wicked the sweat away.

It worked.  During workouts, his new undershirt was lighter.  It kept his skin cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter, Peter Guber shares in his terrific book Tell to Win about the power of storytelling in business.

Soon, Kevin’s teammates wanted one.

At 23, he put all his money into a prototype with superior moisture wicking technology.  

He called his new company Under Armour.

Kevin gave the product to his college athlete friends.  One day NFL quarterback Jeff George was featured on the front page of the USA Today wearing his Raiders uniform and an Under Armour turtleneck.  Kevin’s shirts became a hit with professional athletes.  

But Kevin needed to find a way to broaden the appeal of his products beyond just athletes.  

“I had to make the customer my hero,” Kevin told Peter.  

“We didn’t just say, ‘How may I help you?” he explained. “We asked, ‘What do you want to be?  Do you want to play varsity? Be the best? Lose twenty pounds?’  Whatever it is, you’ll get there with Under Armour.” 

The message was: Under Armour products helped each customer play like a pro. 

“Like telling the Superman story in reverse,” Kevin continues, “I had to make them believe that it wasn’t the obvious Superman costume but Clark Kent’s t-shirt that would give them the liftoff they really needed.” 

“Under Armour would provide the physical assist and the emotional propulsion,” Peter writes.  “But it was the customer who would break higher and higher personal records.”

Today, Under Armour is a $6 billion company which every day tells a version of the customer-as-hero story to consumers, retailers, media, and athletes. 

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Reflection:  Consider a current challenge.  Is there a story I can tell where I can cast my customer as the hero to inspire them to take action?

Action: Tell it.

How to Change the World

Bill Haber was one of the most powerful talent agents in the world.  Then, one day he quit the powerhouse Creative Artist Agency which he had co-founded to become a leader of the nonprofit organization Save the Children

Bill’s entire career had been about telling stories through movies and television.  He would need a brand new story in his new role as an agent of global change.

“Save the Children has forty-one different branches internationally,” he said. “Except for UNICEF, it’s the largest nongovernmental, nonsectarian organization for children in the world. We service thirty-five million desperate children.”

The problem he faced was the scale of the organization and the scope of need it served.  As human beings, we instinctively turn off when numbers get too big and impersonal.  

“Telling people you need to pay for four thousand employees, five million meals, and six thousand pencils doesn’t move them,” writes Peter Guber in Tell to Win, his excellent book on the power of storytelling. 

This week we are looking at the role the hero plays in all powerful stories.  

As storytellers, we must select the proper hero for the story to work.  Yesterday, we looked at how Magic Johnson cast himself as the teller of the story as the hero.  Today, we investigate the listener as the hero.   

So, how does one create interest from potential donors in thirty-five million children?  

By making it about one child.  

Because as human beings, we are wired to respond emotionally one-to-one. 

“Our story had to be that every single child has a story,” says Bill.  “And if you save one child’s life or make one single child’s life whole because of what you do, then you’ve made a difference that matters. 

“Through that one life, you can change the world,” Bill said. 

As a leader of Save the Children, Bill told this story to donors, to government sponsors, and to Save the Children’s own staff and volunteers: “You could take other jobs and have a regular life, but you choose to do this to save that one child’s life,” Bill told his team.  

By sponsoring a child, the listener becomes the hero of the story.  

“Sponsorship is where you spend twenty-four dollars, which goes to one child,” says Bill.  “Then the child writes you. You get a picture of the child, which puts a face on the major character of a story in which you personally participate.  This story proves you are the hero changing the world.  That’s really what moves you.

“Then comes the key to the whole thing: You tell this story to your family and friends, and the story you tell of ‘your’ child, the call to action that you answered, and how that action made you feel,” observes Bill:  “That story persuades them to become sponsors.  And so it goes.”  

“Just tell people that they can make a difference in one child’s life,” Bill says. “That’s how you change the world.” 

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Reflection:  Consider a current challenge.  Is there a story I can tell where I can cast the listener as the hero to inspire them to take action?

Action:  Tell it.

It’s Magic

It’s 1985.  The Los Angeles Lakers have just won game five of the NBA Finals to take a 3-2 series lead against the uber-talented Philadelphia 76ers.  They are one win away from being World Champions.  

But their best player, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, one of the greatest scorers in NBA history, has sprained his ankle.  He’s out for the rest of the series.  

“So even though we’re ahead three to two,” Lakers Coach Pat Riley remembers in Peter Guber’s Tell to Win, a powerhouse book about storytelling.  “Players are coming to me saying, ‘We’re going to get beat.’”

But 19-year old Lakers rookie Magic Johnson didn’t see it that way.

“I know what the problem is. All of you guys are afraid because Kareem isn’t here,” Pat remembers Magic saying.

“Well, I’ll be Kareem.” 

Seat 1A in the front of the Lakers place was reserved for Kareem.  Even when he was sick, no one sat there.  “He’d put a sign there,” Pat recalls: “DON’T SIT IN MY SEAT. I’M KAREEM.”

When the Lakers boarded their flight to Philadelphia, Magic was sitting in seat 1A.  

“Hey, I’m Kareem,” Magic told his teammates.  “I’m here.”

Magic was the team’s point guard.  In game six in Philadelphia, he played Kareem’s position at center.   

“In game six,” Pat shares, “the greatest game ever played by a rookie in the NBA was played by Earvin Magic Johnson. He had 42 points, 15 rebounds, 13 assists, 7 steals. We won 123 to 107. 

“And he was Kareem.” 

“IT’S MAGIC,” read the next day’s Los Angeles Times headline.  The Lakers won the NBA championship and Magic won the NBA finals Most Valuable Player Award. 

“The irony is, Earvin Johnson’s greatest act of magic was the story he told to move his team into believing he was their hero,” writes Peter.  “He pulled it off because he knew he was up to the role and because his ultimate goal was to benefit them all.

“And therein lies the moral of the story for other purposeful tellers who dare to cast themselves as heroes,” Peter writes.  “True teller-heroes are generous as well as powerful. They never lose sight of what’s in their story for their audience. And they only cast themselves as heroes if they know they can deliver.”

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Reflection:  Consider a current challenge.  Is there a story I can tell where I can cast myself as the hero to inspire those around me and deliver?

Action: Tell it.

That’s Your Hero

Becoming a great storyteller is a key skill to succeed in business.    

And in life.

Storytelling is a skill we can get better at.  This week we are continuing our exploration of the central ideas of Hollywood mogul Peter Guber’s wonderful book Tell to Win about the power of storytelling.

Our area of focus?

The role of the hero in telling a great story.  

Business stories, Peter tells us, just like books and movies, consist of three parts: the challenge, the struggle, and the resolution.  

The hero is the character who faces the challenge and fights through to the resolution.

“In every story there’s one person who can make the difference,” says legendary NBA coach Pat Riley, “That’s your hero.”

Our hero is the person, place, or product which allows our audience to feel the change our story promises. 

“The hero is the character that your listener will identify with,” writes Peter.  “Why is this identification important in the art of the tell?  Because, if your audience experiences the story through your hero, and the story leads your hero to embrace your call to action, then your audience automatically will hear your call too!” 

Communications consultant Bob Dickman, who coauthored The Elements of Persuasion, puts it this way: “All the passion in the world won’t do any good, unless you have some place to put it. That’s where the hero comes in.” 

What makes a great hero?

External characteristics like intelligence, good looks, and cool don’t actually move us.  More important are internal traits like hope, love, determination and longing.  

Heroes don’t quit.  It’s like the old adage: the only true failure is the failure to get back up.  

“By hero, I don’t necessarily mean Superman or a grandmother who rushes into a burning building to save a baby,” continues Bob.  “But the character in the story who gives the audience a point of view. The hero’s both our surrogate and our guide.”

True heroes are sympathetic and recognizable characters, writes Peter.  Their struggles and concerns make them authentic and vulnerable.  

The more sympathetic the hero, the more we empathize with their story and its call to action.  

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Reflection: Why is the role of the hero so important to telling a great story?

Action:  Tell a business story today paying specific attention to the hero in my story.

Can a Story Transform a Company?

At first, it felt like a homecoming.

It was 1989.  Sony had just purchased Columbia Picture and hired Peter Guber as CEO.  Earlier in his career, Peter had served as Motion Picture Chief of Columbia. 

The honeymoon was brief, Peter writes, in his excellent book “Tell to Win on the power of storytelling.  This week we are looking at the raw material we can use to tell stories to move our audience to action.  History as well as movies and books are both terrific story content. 

Columbia was struggling.  Revenues were in free-fall and key executives were leaving.

The company included the film studio, television operations, and the Loews movie theater circuit.  There was no unified direction or vision connecting the disparate parts of the company.  Executives were spread out across the country.  Columbia headquarters was the once great but now dilapidated, old MGM lot.  The new Japanese owners were 7,000 miles away.  

One afternoon Peter was called away from a meeting to a call with his new Japanese colleagues.  This being the pre-mobile phone ere, the nearest phone was in a basement storage room.  

While on the call, Peter flipped through some framed movie still photographs.  He came across an iconic photo of Peter O’Toole as Lawrence of Arabia, one of Columbia’s most treasured movies.  

In the scene, T.E. Lawrence, a British military officer was pondering: How do I unite disparate groups of Arab tribes with different values and beliefs to fight the ruling Turks when none believed they could or should work together?

Lawrence hatched a plan to attack Aqaba, the heavily fortified port city at the tip of the Arabian Peninsula.  The city was bordered by the seemingly impassable Nefud desert.  Convinced they could never be attacked from the desert side, the Turks had installed huge guns facing the Red Sea.  

Lawrence’s plan was to do the impossible: march across the desert to surprise the Turks.  

“I’ll do it if you do it,” he challenged the Arab tribal leaders.

Which is exactly what they did.  

By attacking Aqaba’s unprotected back, the Arabs crushed the Turks.

Peter wondered: Could this be the story I’ve been looking for to inspire my disparate teams to reclaim Columbia’s storied heritage and profitability?

Peter told the story of Lawrence and Aqaba at the company’s huge Christmas party. He showed Lawrence’s photograph and gave out Lucite-framed copies of the photograph as a reminder of their mission.

“This is who we are,” Peter told them: “We’re a disparate group of businesses but we’re one tribe.  We need to believe we can make the impossible possible.”

Peter told and re-told the Lawrence of Arabia story.  The message traveled virally across the company:  “It helped reverse the mindset, reshape attitudes and frame our collective state of the heart.”

Peter and his team made a series of strategic moves, including renaming the company Sony Pictures Entertainment and proudly displaying the logo as a visible sign of the new owner’s commitment.  They bought back their video catalog which had previously been sold and placed the Sony trademark on everything they owned or produced.

They transformed the dilapidated studio lot into a cutting-edge HQ that showcased Sony’s full technological capabilities.  And, they renamed their theater circuit Sony Theaters integrating Sony’s cutting-edge SDDS sound and IMAX systems into shimmering new multiplexes across the country.

Success came like a rocket.  Over the next four years, Sony films received over one hundred Oscar nominations, the highest for a studio in film history.  In 1991, Sony earned the highest box office market share of any studio.

The photo of Peter O’Toole as Lawrence of Arabia was proudly displayed in offices across the company illustrating the power of stories to transform unconnected teams into a unified group with a shared sense of identity.  

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Reflection:  Is there a story I could tell that would help bring my team together?

Action: Tell it.

Bill Clinton is on the Phone

“Hello, Peter, this is Bill.”

Presidential candidate Bill Clinton was calling Peter Guber, CEO of Sony Pictures.  

It was early 1992.  Bill was being pummeled in the media for allegations of sexual infidelity.  He had just lost the New Hampshire primary.  Not since 1952 had a candidate won the presidency without first winning New Hampshire.  

Bill was desperate: he needed to raise $90,000 by the end of the day to move on to the next key primary state.  He was calling to ask Peter to reach out to the Hollywood community to raise the necessary funds.

The sum he was requesting told Peter how bad things were.  Asking for $500,000 would make sense.  Requesting $90,000 to move to the next campaign stop signaled the campaign was on the brink.

Campaign finance rules put strict limits of $1,000 on the amount any one individual can donate which meant Peter would have to put his credibility on the line with a whole lot of people.

There was a long pause.

Finally, Bill asked, “Have you ever seen the picture High Noon?”

Peter writes in Tell to Win: “Looking back I can imagine the mental calisthenics being performed on the other end of the phone as Clinton searched for just the right story content that would move this particular audience – me – to his particular goal.”

High Noon is the 1952 classic western movie starring Gary Cooper as the heroic sheriff Will Kane who faces off against a notorious gang.  He expects the community to back him up in the fight.  But at high noon, only one young boy is willing to stand by him at the moment of truth.

Bill didn’t recite the story of the movie.  He didn’t need to.  

“Peter, this is High Noon,” he said.

“Ahha!” writes Peter.  “Those words transported me emotionally, and I immediately got it.

“Because I had personally experienced the emotional drama, urgency, and ultimate exhilaration of Kane’s struggle through the movie, this familiar story immediately triggered my empathy for Clinton’s experience in his campaign.” 

Peter went to work.  He began calling Hollywood A-Listers.  

“You know High Noon, the movie?” Peter asked.  Of course they did.  “Well this is High Noon for Bill Clinton.”

By 4 pm that afternoon, he had collected checks for $90,000.

“When the noon whistle blew in the movie,” writes Peter, “the hero faced his demons, inside and out and braved his way to victory.”  

Bill went on to win the Democratic nomination on his way to becoming the 42nd President of the United States.

His natural storytelling ability was a big reason for his success and movies and books are terrific raw material for our stories.

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Reflection: Think about a current business challenge.  Is there a story from a movie or book I could tell to move people to take action?

Action:  Tell it.

Monkey S***

One day early in his career, Peter Guber, the young studio head at Columbia Pictures, was talking with Jack Warner, the legendary founder and chairman of Warner Bros.

During a lull in the conversation, Jack asked him casually, “How are things going for you at the studio?”  He seemed genuinely interested, Peter writes in his wonderful book, Tell to Win.

He found himself venting: “It’s like a tidal wave.  People just keep coming into my office with one problem after the other.  It never ends.”

Warner paused for a moment and replied, “Let me tell you a story…”  

This week we are exploring where to find raw material for the stories we tell to prompt people to heed our call to action.    

Metaphors and analogies are some of the best source material.

“Don’t be confused,” Jack said.  “You’re only renting that office.  You don’t own it. 

“It’s a zoo.  You’re the zookeeper, and every single person that comes in the office comes with a monkey.  That monkey is their problem.  They’re trying to leave it with you.  

“Your job is to discover where the monkey is.  They’ll hide it, or dress it up, but remember you’re the zookeeper.  You’ve got to keep the place clean.  So make sure when you walk them to the door, they’ve got the monkey by the hand.  Don’t let them leave without it.  Don’t let them come back until it’s trained and they have solutions to their problem.  Otherwise at the end of the day, you’ve had an office full of screaming, jumping animals and monkey s*** all over the floor.”

Then Jack Warner said, “Think of that visually.  Make them all take their monkey problems away and come back with a solution.”

Peter writes: “After that, I noticed visitors to my office would invariably wait until the last possible second to reveal the monkey…  But if I watched and waited, the real problem would come popping out.  Then I would hand it right back to the person who was trying to foist it off on me.  

“Warner’s metaphor became a valuable managerial tool, and I told it forward many times in my career.”

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Reflection: Think about a current business challenge.  Is there a story involving a metaphor or analogy I can share to move people to take action?

Action:  Tell it.

Every Night is Opening Night

It was opening night.  There was a line out the door of the restaurant as people clamored to get inside.

The famous restaurateur Wolfgang Puck had been in Atlanta all week, writes Peter Guber in his terrific book Tell to Win.  Wolfgang wanted to make sure his staff were properly trained and understood the standard of excellence Wolfgang was famous for.

The results were impressive.  The restaurant more than doubled the amount of revenue they had expected.  All was good.

Six months later, Wolfgang was back in Atlanta to bid on a large catering contract.  In the middle of his presentation, someone told him he should shut down his new restaurant: “Take the key, throw it out the door, and lock it up. It’s not you.”

This week we are looking at how storytelling can transform business.  We are exploring different types of raw material for the stories we tell to prompt our audience to take action.  Today, we look at the power of metaphors and analogies.

Wolfgang was alarmed.

The next morning, he was out of bed early. He showed up at the restaurant at 6 am unannounced.

“The sandwich bread was old and dry,” Wolfgang remembered.  “The romaine had brown spots on the side.  You have the simplest thing, a Caesar salad, but it’s terrible because the ends are brown.  It’s not that we bought the worst quality; it’s just that instead of prepping it every day, they did it every three days because it’s cheaper and easier.  The chicken came from an unreliable source.  It wasn’t me.”

Wolfgang’s first instinct was to shut the place down.  Immediately.

Then, he reflected.  He thought about how nervous he always felt when he opened a new restaurant: “What if it doesn’t work out?  What will people think?  Why did I do another restaurant?  What if nobody shows up?” 

Wolfgang knew the anxiety he felt on opening night was a big part of why he was successful:  “On opening night everyone is on their best behavior, making sure everything is just right.”

Wolfgang realized the energy and excitement of opening night was something to be channeled and replicated every night.

Every night is opening night! 

Wolfgang told this story to his team in Atlanta: Every night is opening night! 

They got it.

He began telling this story to his teams in all his restaurants across the country: Every night is opening night!   

Wolfgang realized his patrons flock to his restaurants not just to consume the food, but because they savor the entire experience.  

And, they retell it.

“I wish somebody had told me, ‘Wolfgang just tell a story; it’s easy!”

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Reflection: Think about a current business challenge.  Is there a story from a personal experience I could tell to move people to take action?

Action:  Tell it.

There’s an Adventure in that Taco…

One night, Hollywood mogul Peter Guber stopped by the Border Grill in Los Angeles.  

What happened next surprised him.

First, he took a bite of his fish taco.  “The taste blew me away,” he writes in Tell to Win: Connect, Persuade, and Triumph with the Hidden Power of Story. 

Then, his waiter noticed the look on his face and remarked, “You know, there is an adventure in that taco.”

This week we are continuing our exploration of storytelling and its power to transform business.  One challenge we all have is where to find the raw material for stories that will move our listeners to act on our call to action.

The first place to look is our own experiences.  We all face challenges and struggle to resolve them.  Transforming our experiences into stories starts with remembering not only what happened but what it meant to us.  This is prime story content.

The waiter explained that twenty years earlier, Border Grill owners Susan Feniger and Mary Sue Milliken arrived at a seaside village in Mexico at 4 AM.  The only restaurant open was a small taco stand.  

Famished, they ordered fish tacos. Susan and Mary Sue were captivated by the taste of the tacos and the quality of the fresh ingredients – lobster, salmon, shredded cucumber, and a bottle of olive oil. They stood there for an hour with a notebook trying to figure out exactly what the cook was doing to create the mouth-watering flavors.  

The taco man brought out two more tacos and a couple of beers. They stayed until sunrise eating everything he prepared. 

The owner of the taco stand invited the women back the next day which was a Sunday.  The taco stand was closed but this time he prepared an incredible stew of beans and salsa.  

The waiter pointed to the item on the Border Grill menu.  

“Now I was hooked,” Peter writes.  He asked the waiter to bring out the stew of beans and salsa.  

“They spent the whole afternoon with this man and his family in Mexico,” said the waiter.

Peter enjoyed the food and loved the waiter’s stories.  

He was so impressed by his experience at the Border Grill he invited Susan to visit his UCLA course and share how she encourages the waiters to tell purposeful stories.

Susan and Mary Sue now own multiple restaurants in Los Angeles and Las Vegas and also have a Food Network TV show.  They have traveled all over the world to find authentic and unique flavors and colors, music and architecture to distinguish their restaurants. 

Susan believes that storytelling is a key element of their staff’s training.  The waiters are encouraged to share Susan and Mary Sue’s adventures which then become part of the experience of dining at their restaurants.  

Then, their customers go out and tell these stories to their friends.

That’s the power of storytelling.

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Reflection:  What stories can I tell about my products and services? 

Action:  Incorporate these stories into training of new associates.

How to get Jack Nicholson to say Yes

Academy Award winning producer Peter Guber was convinced Jack Nicholson was perfect to play the Joker in the original Batman movie.  

Peter had been working for eight years to bring the movie to the silver screen.

Eight years fraught with uncertainty.  

Peter had hired Tim Burton as the movie’s director.  Michael Keaton had been brought aboard to play Batman.  

All they needed was a world-class villain.  

Jack was their choice.  Peter and Tim knew he’d make a formidable Joker.  Tim’s vision was to revolutionize film with a new type of “super villain,” a darker, complex antihero unlike any other in movie history.  

But the clock was ticking.  While Jack claimed to be interested, he was slow to make up his mind.

Finally, Jack called.  “OK, I want to meet Tim Burton.”  

This week we are exploring some of the key ideas of storytelling from Peter’s book Tell to Win.  Preparation is essential to telling a purposeful story.  Getting to know our audience includes figuring where they will be most receptive to “our tell.” We must look, listen, and locate their comfort zone.  Perhaps their favorite restaurant.  At home or in the office?  The golf course? 

Jack wanted the meeting to take place in Aspen where he had a home.

Peter describes movie director Tim Burton as “a notoriously quirky character with a penchant for the macabre.”  Traveling to Aspen was not in his comfort zone.  

“Not only was he unaccustomed to the country,” Peter writes, “But all the pressure was on him to come up with a story to win Jack now, or the movie might never get made.”  

Soon after the Warner Bros. jet touched down in Aspen, Jack called and upped the ante: “Let’s go horseback riding.”

As Peter hung up the phone, Tim said, “I don’t ride horses.”

“You do now,” Peter replied.

Peter would never know if Jack had done his research on Tim and was testing him.  “But I knew we didn’t want to launch the relationship with a no,” writes Peter.

As storytellers, we want our audience to feel comfortable and willing to hear our story.    

Peter writes: “I suspect that was the last horse Tim ever went near, but out there on the trail, as we rode across the meadow of Jack’s comfort zone, Tim passionately told his story of how he and Jack together would change movie history.  That context put Jack in exactly the right mind frame to hear Tim’s story.”

By the end of the ride, Jack was in.

Batman would become the granddaddy of all comic-book movies,

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Reflection:  Why is location an important consideration when we are “telling to win?”

Action:  Journal about the pluses and minuses of potential locations for an upcoming presentation where the goal is to persuade someone to take action.

“I’m Going to Take Care of You.”  

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.  

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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.

Pack for One Night

Imagine for a moment you are an NBA coach. 

Playing on your home court, your team has just won game five of the NBA championship.  You now lead the series 3-2.

You realize you will play the remainder of the series in the other team’s arena.  In front of the other team’s home fans.

Statistically, you know the team with home court advantage wins more than 75% of game sevens.

What do you do?

If you are Pat Riley, coach of the 2006 Miami Heat, you tell your team to pack for one night.

“Just one day of dress and change.”

As Peter Guber shares in Tell to Win, instinctively, Pat knew to win the championship trophy, his team needed to win game six.  

There would be no game seven.

Pat needed to make his goal feel real, tangible and achievable.  To put his players inside the positive experience of winning game six in a way that was hard, fast, and definite. 

Pack for one night.  

They would be coming home that night as NBA world champions

Pat prepared his team to win by preparing the right story to tell.

He told it.  They felt it.  And they did it.

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Reflection:  What story might I tell to move people to take action toward an important project?

Action:  Tell it.