The Four Truths of the Storyteller
Getting Your Story Straight
How do you weave a good corporate story? And why should a story connect with people better than a PowerPoint presentation does? These are a couple of questions I was asked by readers of my previous column, "The CEO As Storyteller In Chief."
Yes, there is a scientific reason why storytelling beats PowerPoint. Evolutionary psychologists explain that in the generations that mankind spent as hunter-gatherers in the African savannas, we developed ways of coordinating efforts among individuals who might otherwise interfere with one another (remarkably similar to what any organization tries to achieve). Spoken communication evolved as an essential tool of that coordination, and stories emerged as the organizing framework for assembling information. They became the main means of recording and sharing knowledge before the invention of writing. We were remembering and relating to stories long before data points and lists were ever dreamed of.
Stories are essential to our nature as human beings, and that is why they constitute the single most powerful weapon not only for corporate leaders--as the Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner has said--but for everyone at every level in an organization. Peter Guber, a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, School of Theater, Film and Television and the producer of Batman and Rain Man and other movies, believes that the ability to articulate your or your business's story is crucial in almost every phase of enterprise management. "It works all along the business food chain: A great salesperson knows how to tell a story in which the product is the hero. A successful line manager can rally the team to extraordinary efforts with a story that shows how short-term sacrifice leads to longterm success. An effective CEO uses an emotional narrative about the company's mission to attract investors and partners, to set lofty goals, and to inspire employees," he says. In a good organization, everyone is a storyteller.
And weaving a good story isn't even hard. According to one of the master storytellers of our time, Steven Spielberg, it comes down to just three elements -- a beginning, a middle and an end. Or, in the corporate context, a situation, a complication and a resolution. For example, in the story of Jack Welch, who took over as General Electric's youngest chairman and chief executive officer ever in 1981, the situation was the slow growth economy in which his company was bogged down. That was a given, and he couldn't do much about it. The second element, the complication, is the twist in the tale, the disturbing event that makes matters worse. For Welch, that meant the inefficiencies and bureaucracy within GE that were slowing down the company even further in an already slow economy.
Which leads to the third element of the story, the leader's way out of the complication, the resolution.
Welch's resolution involved driving up productivity at GE by any means. He shut down factories, reduced payrolls and cut lackluster old-line units, all the while telling his story about why productivity had to improve. Of course, there was skepticism at first, but eventually his story began to resonate deeply.
I don't suggest that all our stories need to be like Welch's. He got from situation and complication to resolution with a ruthlessness that earned him the nickname "Neutron Jack." Most of us can afford to be a little milder. But a well-knit story with a beginning, middle and end--a situation, complication and resolution--can have the power to move mountains. It can persuade people to leave behind their most hardened thoughts and habits and spring in to action. If you have crafted your story well, it will work regardless of the level you're at in your organization or the role you play there--just as it once did for our forefathers on the African plains.
When Not to Stick to the Script
You all know the character. He was rich, powerful, handsome and commanded the respect of even the most shrewd businessmen in the world. But that's no way to run a business in reality, at least not completely, says leading Hollywood producer and chief executive of Mandalay Entertainment, Peter Guber.
"There's a Gordon Gekko in every great businessman," Guber said of the fierce corporate raider Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas) from the 1987 Oliver Stone film Wall Street.
"But he must be reined in and controlled and managed. That tenacity and that energy and that determination are really good, but when it's unbridled it's dangerous," he said.
Guber, 65, known for producing such silver-screen classics as Rain Man (1988) and Batman (1989), has a theory on leadership that doesn't just pertain to the movie business, but it undoubtedly stems from his love of a great script.
Guber said effective leadership must involve storytelling. That's not to say that Merrill Lynch's former chief, Stanley O'Neal, would've still had a job and not put the company in such distress had he told an anecdote to employees from time to time. It means that, in many respects, the operation should function like a movie that resonates with peoples' hearts and minds. It involves conflict, drama, action, uncertainty and risk.
"Like all good stories, if they're risk averse, they won't succeed," Guber said. "So you have to build risk into the story. It's drama. The drama of the company, the drama of the product and the drama of the people is what makes the story compelling and exciting."
Apple's top dog Steve Jobs fits Guber's mold, so does retired General Electric chief, the legendary John Francis "Jack" Welch. There are a few exemplary leaders in movies, too, though Guber admits that it's too difficult to list them when they all tend to be villains. Again, see: Gekko.
Forbes.com: Describe your theory on how storytelling is an effective technique that can be employed by business leaders big and small.
Peter Guber: The leader of the company must narrate the story of the company. He must narrate the product, the people, the information into a set of rules, tools, values and beliefs that trickle down all the way through the culture of the company.
Like all good stories, if they're risk averse, they won't succeed. So you have to build risk into the story. It's drama. The drama of the company, the drama of the product and the drama of the people is what makes the story compelling and exciting.
So the idea for the company and its leadership is that it's more than perspiring, they must inspire. Perspiring can only get you so far. You have to do hard work and you have to work at it. It's the "it" that you're working at. What is the aspiration element of the company, the product and the service that's being rendered? And if there is none, the company is going to run out of fuel very quickly.
These risks are calculated to an extent, right? You wouldn't want to make the wrong choice.
All risk has some calculation whether observed or not. In other words, the idea is if you have two eyes in the rearview mirror and you're leading your company looking at last year's product, whether it be movies or whether it be the Walkman, you don't realize that looking forward you can't see the future. You can't design it, but you have to be prepared for it. And the way you prepare for it is you have to be willing to calculate uncertainty in your decision.
When you try to be so certain, you're looking at two eyes in the rearview mirror. You have to welcome uncertainty as an ally and that means leading with fear and anxiety. For top executives, uncertainty is something they don't espouse but uncertainty is the birthright of creativity. It's the birth place of creativity. So as long as you're certain about everything, you're never going to create something new.
Who in big business is modeling this type of leadership and are they winning more than they're losing?
You never really know what someone is capable of until they've had some failure or loss and got back up and won again. Those are the most interesting characters and the most interesting stories. There are a lot of people who have taken their licks and learned and grown in business. In this public arena, it's very hard with quarter-to-quarter earnings and advance notices, the pressure on innovation in terms for repetition is always there.
Investing long term into possibility and not certain probability is difficult in a public company.
On the larger scene, I would look at Steve Jobs, who has a vision. He's a vision keeper. He tells the story of his company, his products. He narrates them effectively. His feet, his tongue and his wallet go in the same direction.
He's "aspirational" and not just "persperational." He's got a design platform for his company. He narrates the story and lives the story himself. His products reflect that culture and the people in the company reflect that strategy. He's innovative and yet he's disciplined. His story, his narration of his products and his people and his company and his image and his mission are consistent and yet changing. And he's also a fellow who has experience some real knocks in his life, personally and professionally.
An individual who does it completely differently would be Jack Welch while he was at General Electric. You're managing a company that has disparate elements like jet engines and medical imaging hardware. And at the same time the software of television, or movies or music or whatever he was involved in amongst many other services, including financial services.
Somehow he was -- I don't want to call him an impresario because that sounds too glib -- a person who could understand that he had to manage the disparate elements with a common theology, a view of the world which he took very seriously. He presented himself as the leader even though he could reach down and touch the people below him and the products below him. He chose his battles very carefully because he knew that when he fought the battle he was Spartacus, he risked the whole institution. So he was very smart how he led.
Many executives lead with their chin. Welch led with the resources of his company and his own resourcefulness.
Who in fiction, particularly movies, bears the same qualities of the leaders that you named in real-life business?
That's a harder question because with business stories in fiction the head of the company is the enemy. He's the villain. He's not the hero. He's at the top of the mountain and, therefore, the story is about how he gets knocked off or how the little guy overcomes him.
But if you think about some interesting ones, think about Mr. (Don Vito) Corleone from The Godfather (1972).
Not his sons, not his protégés, but he himself managed to keep above the fray in his businesses, though illegal, creating a constant culture that other people could own and reinforce and could be understood at 60 miles per hour on a rainy night. There's no confusion about his business or his culture. And he had an identity as well.
Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life (1946) -- a very small business person (James Stewart as George Bailey) who got lost in the trample to become successful and lost the fact that he was successful and never enjoyed it until he, at the last second, had a chance to get it back. He learned something from his failure. He was a leader and a business person who lost his way and found his way back, unlike Michael Douglas' character in Wall Street (1987).
Do you think a man's, a leader's, character is his destiny in business leadership?
Well, his life might work out but his business might not. Character is different than reputation. Reputation is what your business purpose serves--how you interface with people; how you're seen by everybody watching you; how your products behave; how your company moves. That's all important to have real results. That reputation pays out in dividends.
Character portrays a completely different thing. Character is what you do when nobody is looking. That's the unseen quality. It's the quality that doesn't look for the reward. It's in the being and the doing. That's the reward.
If people have really terrific character, they will enjoy their life. They will overcome their failures. They will experience their life to its fullest. But they may not have the business reputation to match it.
One is a currency you spend. The other is a currency you keep.
Sharing Stories, not Just Information, to Communicate Effectively
Do you want to communicate a corporate message effectively? Turn it into a story, says Mandalay Entertainment Group chairman Peter Guber. A consummate storyteller -- his films, such as Rain Man, Batman, The Color Purple, Midnight Express, and Flashdance, have earned more than $3 billion in worldwide revenue and more than 50 Academy Award nominations -- he argues that stories are more memorable and engaging than slide presentations, memos or sales pitches. He was interviewed for Knowledge@Wharton by Steve Ennen, managing director of the Wharton Interactive Media Initiative. An edited transcript follows.
Knowledge@Wharton: Good morning, Peter. Thank you for joining us here at Knowledge@Wharton as part of your participation in the 13th Annual Wharton Leadership Conference.
Peter Guber: My pleasure indeed.
Knowledge@Wharton: You gave a great presentation to a packed room ... about story telling as a form of leadership.... Maybe you can give us a quick recap of a few of the high points, the "MAGIC" aspect maybe.
Guber: The conceit that I've come to believe in over the past 40 years of my career -- in virtually every part of storytelling, from writing books and speaking and teaching and being a newscaster and being a talk show host for 533 interviews and making thousands of movies and television shows -- is that we are all wired as storytellers. The amazing thing is we're all born as storytellers and story-listeners and somehow we don't venerate its value. It's only later in our life that we ... wonder why this [leadership strategy] is working or why it's not working. My mission is to ... empower [people] to be better storytellers [and better] story listeners for the purpose of realizing their own success....
Knowledge@Wharton: Is it more of an individual philosophy, or does it come from the perspective of leading a company or an enterprise?
Guber: It's not my own individual philosophy.... I didn't invent it.... It's really recognizing that [storytelling is] the way our tribe works..., the way our society works. That the organizing principle of our society is language that gives us social organization, gives us tactics and strategy and allowed us first as a creature coming out of the jungle of woods to climb up the food chain because we weren't as fast as a rhinoceros or a lion or an elephant or as big or as tough. So our organizing principle was to have language that allowed us to communicate the values and rules and beliefs of the tribe to work together to accomplish our goals that are, in this case, a company or a service provider or whatever it is. Nobody is wired to remember information. They're really not. What's actionable is when information is encoded or embedded into a narrative and it's emotionally rendered. They hold the information in a different way and it becomes memorable, more actionable, and definitely virally marketable.
Knowledge@Wharton: So is that a good form of leadership? How can you actually take these stories and communicate them to a large organization, and bind and coalesce them into one mission?
Guber: Every great leader is a storyteller.... And I don't know how you can really be a good leader ... without having that as part of your portfolio. Now some people do it without knowing fully what they're doing. They're just natural storytellers. But we're all natural storytellers. They've just let it come to the forefront more willingly. Everybody could take 10, 12, 15 strokes off [their] game by just recognizing ... the tools that you could use to shine the light on your innate ability and, therefore, fulfill your destiny and your mission and get other people to join you and participate in your goals.
Knowledge@Wharton: Clearly it's motivational and it's even manageable. I can see that in some of the sports teams that your company's involved with. What about a multinational corporation? How can you execute on that story?
Guber: When you have a multinational corporation you [must] realize there ... are stories that cross the lines of different societies -- and some that don't. Sometimes you have to find the aesthetic equivalent ... that empowers the group [in] the same way a particular story such as "The Three Bears" and "Little Red Riding Hood" do in ours. Obama got elected as Barack Hussein Obama in the United States with a very traditional American story and [he] narrates those stories really well and knows how to take his policies and issues and narrate them into manageable personable stories that people can listen to and hear, and are moved emotionally [to] tell other people. Yet if he were to go to Afghanistan, the mere translation of that story using content as metaphor, he would have to find some other framing devices to get that emotional reaction. But it's still the same tool.... The idea of recognizing what's interesting to your audience may be different in different cultures.... And if you're interested in it ..., you'll connect with their heart. We see it with leadership across the world. We see it with Nelson Mandela who was able to incite, enthuse and involve people of different cultures. We see it with different types of leaders. We even see it with despots.
So the idea is that story telling, and the ability to narrate your offering, is agnostic. It's a tool. The gun doesn't kill people. People using the gun kill people. Using the gun saves people. Using the gun hunts for food. So it's not the gun. And so therefore narrative of the story is a tool and it's used [with] purposefulness. We're talking about purposeful business storytelling for leadership ... and that's the indicia that we try to shine a light on. How do we do that? And really we're all wired for that. We just have to put the switch at a higher level. Get a little more bass, a little more volume. Get a little more practice with it -- and you get tremendous results.
Knowledge@Wharton: As a business leader, how do you communicate that story to mid level managers and not just one, but many across the country. How do you make sure everybody is hearing the same story and falling into the allegory and moving forward with that?
Guber: The idea is you move people's hearts and emotions before you move their feet [or] their tongue. What narrative does is it excites a group of people to a common course of action and makes them the really good narrator [of] the really good story. [It] makes them apostles or advocates of the story. If you have to tell ... the story to every one of your 3,500 employees in 54 countries, it's asinine. It doesn't make sense. Yes, you could ... broadcast it. Broadcast can help. But ... what really helps is when someone lays their hands on somebody else -- and I didn't mean metaphorically -- and, as an apostle and an advocate, as a viral marketer [and] a first mover, tells you their experience. They render that experience to you. So you try to use narrative to excite and move these other people to move other people. That's really the secret.
So when General Motors is designing a new campaign to say that the car business isn't over and GM isn't over, it [is] interesting. The first story they told was to their own employees ... not to the media and not to the marketplace. They told their employees.... And they had to be very transparent and they had to be able to say, "We goofed. We missed it. We started late. We had our accent on the wrong syllable." So the idea is they were vulnerable and pathetic and they told a story -- there were several stories told -- about the folks who ... [started] General Motors and how they couldn't see what was going to happen, but they believed. And they used that founder's story as a way to re-energize the belief and the legacy for the company, but not a legacy for bad behavior and poor performance and a lack of consideration for all the environmental elements that were going on that the car company was obviously indifferent to. So it's a challenge because you have to recognize that in every narrative experience, there's just so much advertising you do. You need the people who have the experience and receive the benefit to take that benefit and their experience of it and retail it in their own language as their experience to other people. That's what viral advocacy is about.
Knowledge@Wharton: Is success of viral advocacy in this scenario measurable?
Guber: Well, it is measurable. The metrics of performance [are] measurable. You can [ask] how many automobiles were sold, how much health care has performed, what is the [recidivism] ... in prisons. You can look at any series of businesses or enterprises and have them measurable. The question is, "Are they measurable against that particular event that you believe made that delta change?" That's the question. If all of a sudden more people are buying Cheerios now than they did last year, and you have a story you told that Cheerios isn't just about weight -- it's about good health because of your heart and lower cholesterol -- and you tell stories about people who have really performed and enhanced their life [with] it, you can say, "Look, we have a 14% increase in Cheerios sales." But you have to look and ask..., "Is that completely as a cause and result of this campaign? Or is it a cause and result of [a] price point change? Is it the marketplace? It's impossible often to say exactly what it is, but you could see the Mini Cooper go from 0.001 recognition and 0.0001 purchases in America, and then [after its appearance in] James Bond or [The Italian Job] made it cool to drive the Mini Cooper and then [Mark Wahlberg said] it was a really fun car to drive, suddenly it wasn't 0.0001 anymore. Well, I don't know what else they were doing differently at that time. So you'd say, "There must be a pony here. Something's going on here."
It's very hard sometimes to lay it exactly out there. But ... if you get that improvement, it's more than likely you can find [the movie appearances and endorsement] was one of the major sources. Narrative ignites -- or it's a kindling instrument. It ignites the pilot light and then oxygen fans the conflagration by ... people embracing it. And so what you really have to recognize is there's no way that information can do it. If you think about stories changing the world, it's constantly that. We had Vietnam. There were 90 million, trillion stories written about Vietnam, but none more poignant than the little girl running with the napalm on [her]. They'll tell you the story of Vietnam. Or the [photo of] policemen shooting the guy in the head. That's a story. A picture is an artifact. That's a story just like words are. Sometimes they're even more powerful than all the words. So the idea is it's an incitement -- an incitement to action. And when it's purposeful, when it's aimed at doing that, but it's also generous and vulnerable by the teller, it's very powerful.
Knowledge@Wharton: You mentioned a couple times ... the viral aspect. It's not just the story told by a company or brand, but now you have to deal with a lot of other voices and a lot of other storytellers out there thanks to the interactive media. What's your take on how that role builds into the overall story?
Guber: I think [the] old THX ad that played in the movie theatres that said "the audience is listening" is one generation behind. The audience is talking now. And so they're listening and talking back and talking not just back to you, but they're talking to each other. So you have to depend upon that for success. It's not an incident that happens accidentally. It may look like it happens accidentally -- and it's even better if it looks like it happens accidentally -- but that has to be what purposeful storytelling is. It's to move people's hearts so that they move their feet. Yell fire, and people get scared that they're going to die and they move their feet. You don't have to tell them, "Move your feet, run for the door." They know that. So what you need to do with purposeful narrative is recognize three things:
What's going to be interesting to the audience emotionally?
How [do you] bond and bind your call to action to it?
And ... be willing to surrender control. You tell your story and you have to surrender control. You won't move everybody.... If it moves enough people [to] lay hands on other people and say ... it's the most exciting thing [they have] ever heard of, this is wonderful about this company or [they] can't believe [company] really cares about me.
If you move that, that experience moves somebody else. So you can't depend upon changing everybody's heart and mind and wallet at the same moment with a single story. You hope that it has this viral [quality] that [lets it] be told and retold, and other people reach other people in different experiential ways. That is the power, [when] the story migrates through a class or group of people to create an organizational belief system. If you think about it, we all grew up and we still grow up with religious beliefs, rules and stories. And all the tribes that we all belong to [over] thousands of years ... had rules, values, and beliefs. What were they encoded in? The stories. They call them the Koran. They call them the Bible. They call then the Torah. They call them the manifesto. Even the communistic manifesto -- they're all bound in that. They're stories. Why are they stories? Because people can then code the information and then tell them to each other. And I think that business has to recognize that leadership depends upon inciting your management team and your middle level managers and the people in the field to an action that's coherent. It's driven in the same direction. They don't have to speak it the same way, but the heart of the story is the same way. And it's not that it's easy or hard. It's the only way. It's not like there's another way. If you give them just the information, they won't remember it a day later. They just won't.
Knowledge@Wharton: That's why a story behind it had to move them at an emotional level as well as a vision level.
Knowledge@Wharton: So the other question that comes to mind ... is now that the tribes are online, the idea of surrendering control can often be troubling to any company as they see that conversation and that story diluted and diversified. What's your response to that as the tribes move online?
Guber: Control is an illusion. You don't control anybody. You can try controlling yourself. You can ask somebody who is smoking to stop smoking, drinking to stop drinking; [to] stop hitting their wife, stop yelling at their kids; stop driving fast. Whatever it is. It's very, very difficult. You really can ... inflict pain on somebody, enough pain that [you will] force them not to do it. But not to not want to do it. What you have to recognize is that you provide navigational stakes, you provide emotional incentives. That's what stories do. You provide the herding mechanism of social proof of other people doing it and getting value from it. And you surrender control. There will always be abhorrent people [who] want other products, [who] want to do it differently, [who] don't like your management style, [who] don't like your story. There are always people like that. But you aim towards the center of the target and ... you fire it and you hope like hell it hits the target -- hopefully the bull's eye, or enough bull's eyes that cumulatively together they create the result. And then other people carry the flag.
That's really the magic in it because the other people tell their story of the story and their ownership of it and your ability to surrender it and let them own it. Surrendering proprietorship and letting somebody own it is the key. That's really the key. Even if it's a collaborative story, a tribal story. Allowing them to own it. You look how the Bible's morphed. You look at all the great stories that have held cultures together and then driven people to wars. It's in the telling. It's in the rendering. You can say ... it's an art form. There are some people [who] are more effective at it than others. But anybody can take 10, 12, 15 strokes off their game and change their result. You're not going to become John Grisham or Jack Welch or Barack Obama -- likely not. But you don't have to. If you can change your game 10, 12, 15, 20, 25% -- [you'll find] more joy and more success.
Knowledge@Wharton: How has story telling changed with all the digital media -- with the blogs and the YouTubes...? Viral is a tough strategy of containing and controlling the messages, [which] as you mentioned are ridiculous a lot of times. But how [has] the actual art of storytelling changed?
Guber: The art hasn't changed at all. Zero. Not one percent. The craft has changed. And the tools that enable it have changed. So if you think of the food chain starting out with a shaman in front of a fire, forget that. [Think of] a shaman in front of a cave with no fire talking to ... the tribe and telling them not to go into the woods, and telling them the story of the woods. That story changed when new technology came. But with new technology, somebody around the flickering of fire picked up a [skull] of a buffalo and put it on his head and danced around the fire and the fire cast flickers images on the cave wall and all the young people screamed and yelled, and they wanted to listen to his story rather than the other shaman ... who just stood there and drawled on about it. So the prop was born.
We've had a consistent change of technology. The spaces between them have been long and far and distant over our [history]. It's only in the last millisecond that we've seen the change in trajectory and momentum of tools like the telegraph, like the telephone, like the television, like the radio, like the Internet, like satellite distribution, like mobile. That's only in the last ... second. And these tools have changed the availability of resources for people to tell stories and reach audiences, but they haven't changed the resourcefulness. In other words, the inside of you.... If I put the microphone in front of you and you have nothing to say, and you don't understand who the audience is [or] what your role is, ... or who ... you're talking to and how to incite their imagination and move their hearts -- the microphone isn't going to do it. Nobody says "hey, I just heard a bunch of 0s and 1s. Can you believe -- I heard 10,450,000 0s and 1s." They'd rush you and take you to the nuthouse. You heard the oohs and aahs. You heard the brawl analog.
So the idea is at the end of the day, all technology is a cold comfort unless it enriches the palate of the artist, that's the teller, you and me, the businessman, the service provider, the human resource person, or it enriches the palate of the audience. They get it better. They can do more with it. They can hold on to it. They can replay it. They can listen to it in different places. They can talk to other people. They can play bits and pieces. They can reformat it. They can use it like YouTube on their own.
All those things ... shorten the distance between the artist and the audience, between the teller and the listener, whatever words you want to use between the management and ... employees, between the board of directors and the shareholders, whatever it is. It shortens the distance. Or it deepens the resonance. Or it makes the tools available so they can talk to each other better or get feedback. All those things.
But at the end of the day, we're all analog. Our evolutionary framework is not changed. Carl Sagan, the astrophysicist who I did Contact with, said an amazing thing. He said ... if you took a ... Stone Age man just when he was born -- maybe for the six or seven months before he was born you nurtured [his] mother well so they weren't malnourished or the like. But you did that. You took that Stone Age person who knew nobody except for the Stone Age culture he lived in and you brought him to New York, Boston, Philadelphia, and [raised him] in a rich cultural smart environment, [he] could be a super scientist, great artist, great anybody. We have not changed. We have not really changed very much. Our evolutionary path has not changed. We've grown a little taller. We've lived a little longer. But the idea about our tribal nature is that the veneer of civilization is so thin -- you tell the wrong story and you get Hitler. You don't serve bread in Chicago for three days, you get a bread riot. So the idea is that stories incite the population, the people, the companies and managements, the small groups and everything to do the damnedest of things. We are subject to it.
So the idea is we want to learn not just to be a good steward -- not learn -- we want to improve our ability to be a good storyteller for our own success.... but there's another side to it: To be a good story decoder. A good story listener. So that we're listening to our chairman, our CEO, our human resource person, and we can ask them fundamental questions. Are they being empathetic? Do they hear me? Is there a generosity in there? Do they have skin in the game? Are they congruent with their message? Whatever it is, we become a good story listener. And, therefore, we become a better businessperson, a better business partner. We can ask questions that can draw it out. If they're not really good enough in that frame to draw out the real information that we need inside the story, [we need to] know we're getting what we need....
There's some art and there's some craft in it -- storytelling is what you're born with. You're born with it. You're born that way. Just look at all your ... little kids. They just love it. They ... can see it over and over and over and over again. They love it. They love the certainty. They love the variety. They love the telling. They learn the rules of the road from it. Why would we surrender it in business? Why wouldn't we engage that tool ferociously to move our management, to move our employees, to move our shareholders and board of directors, to deal with the media who only deal with stories? The media isn't even interested in the facts. They just want the story. And it's their story they want. So if you don't know how to tell a good story, they're going to tell their story.
Knowledge@Wharton: You've brought this concept down into a very manageable acronym -- MAGIC. It's something you can measure in a lot of cases. Maybe you could -- in the short time that we have left -- you could give us a little insight into MAGIC.
Guber: I used the word MAGIC ... because people think stories are always magic. They think it's the ultimate sleight of hand. It's really not about state of the art technology; it's about state of the heart technology. The idea is you're moving people's hearts. What I wanted to try to do was just to look at some of the tools and resources and navigational stakes, and ... put them in a simple way so I could just think about it quickly; just before ... you go into your meeting with your employees or your human resource person, before you talk to two or three people or before an oral narrative, before you talk to a customer or a service provider or the media or your shareholders or whatever it is. So I tried to use MAGIC as a tool, to just say is there a magic? Yes, the magic is here in your heart. And what does that mean?
You have to motivate. M. You have to motivate. You've got to be motivated first. Tell yourself your own story. Make sure you are motivated because they will see if you're not authentic. If your authenticity doesn't shine through, if you don't have the right intention, you aren't going to get the audience's attention. There's no chance. Zero. They'll get it before you even speak the first word. So that's the first thing, motivating them. And then when you motivate the person you're listening to, you are trying to get ... their attention and you want to be congruent. You want to show them that you have skin in the game, that you have your "alignment of interest" as they say in business school. Or another way of saying it is that your heart, tongue, feet and wallet are going in the same direction. Because when they see that lack of congruence there's a lack of authenticity and they don't believe what you say. Your words are resting on an empty palate.
The next thing is Audience. Understand. If you think of the one listener, the person listening to you as an audience, you render an experience to them. You try to engage them emotionally, not intellectually. You may have intellectual content, it can't be an empty calorie, but the idea is you're engaging them emotionally. You're creating a palate on which this information is to rest. So you look at A for Audience. Think of them as interactive. Think of it not as me, but we. Think of it as that connection.
Then G, your goal. All storytelling narrative is goal oriented. If you're a lawyer, you want your client [to be found] not guilty. If you're a doctor, you want [patients] take their medicine and feel a certain way.... If you're a politician, you want them to vote for you. If you're talking to a customer, you want them to buy your product. If you're talking to an employee, you want them to sell the message the way you want them to sell the message or behave a certain way or join the tribe or whatever it is. So your goal, being transparent is important. If it's generous, if it looks like it's we're in it together -- it's a 'we, not a me' situation. It becomes more compelling. You feel it's not being done to you; it's being done with you.
And then I. Interactive. All narrative, all storytelling is interactive. Just think of what's happening in interactive media and why it's so compelling. Because you can talk back. But not just back to the talker, the leader, the CEO, the human resource person -- but to other people. In fact, it's encouraged. In fact, that's what good story telling does. It creates a viral advocacy amongst the listeners so interactivity is really important and it gives more of the sense that you engage or the more likely it is to be memorable.
And then C. Content. You always have to remember you have to have good content. But it comes from everywhere. It comes from your own experience. Say, "Let me tell you about what happened to me yesterday." And then people are rendering a first person experience. It can be history. "Look what happened. Cortes burned the boats so that no one would return and they would fight Montezuma." You tell that story. Or it can be in an artifact, the baseball. Barry Bond's baseball tells the story of steroids. Tells the story of triumph. Tells the story of overcoming things. Lots of different stories enmeshed in it. Or it can be a completely synthetic story ... where you put the elements together that are, if you will, an illusion. It can be like "The Three Bears." Telling a fantasy story. But all of them at their heart are designed to make people, folks who are listening to it, have an emotional reaction. If somebody says to you, I heard a story, it made me think. You're listening to a flop. It's got to move your heart and then make you think. They go first to where it's your heart or your gut and they migrate up to your head and then they migrate to your wallet and your feet. So you get the other kind of action. If you aim at their wallet or their feet, you ain't going to get them to dance or pay, unless they've got a gun to their head. And that won't work.
Knowledge@Wharton: Well, you've certainly given us a lot of great content here in our conversation and we appreciate your time with Knowledge@Wharton.
Guber: Thanks for inviting me.
Spinning Memos into Tales
It should be no surprise that when it comes to leadership, movie mogul Peter Guber's thoughts turn quickly to storytelling. After all, storytelling is the business in which Guber emerged as a leader.
At the recent 13th Annual Wharton Leadership Conference, co-sponsored by Wharton's Center for Human Resources and the Center for Leadership & Change Management, Guber noted that the best way to communicate with and motivate employees is to tell them a story -- to repackage an enterprise's vision, goals and challenges into a narrative that audiences can understand, embrace and share. (In a separate podcast interview with Steve Ennen, managing director of the Wharton Interactive Media Initiative, Guber explains why in a corporate setting, stories are more memorable and engaging than slide presentations, memos or sales pitches.)
"What is the magic that I found?" Guber asked his audience. "It's the God-given ability to tell oral stories. You have to get someone else to do something. Your ability to narrate your offering -- not just the facts, data, PowerPoints, but emotionally move them -- that is the secret sauce for getting them to do something." Guber, 68, professes that he discovered the secret late in his life, only after purposefully trying to tease out a common thread in the things that have worked for him.
Born in Newton, Mass., Guber began his career in 1968. He joined Columbia Pictures and within three years was studio chief, leading Columbia through an era of hits, including Shampoo, The Way We Were, Taxi Driver and Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
He was named chairman and CEO of Sony Pictures in 1989. Under his tenure, the studio released Basic Instinct, A League of Their Own, A Few Good Men, Sleepless in Seattle and Groundhog Day. He formed Mandalay Entertainment Group in 1995, designing it to be a multimedia studio with projects in film, television, music, video games and web sites, plus ownership of minor league baseball teams. He is also a professor at the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television, and hosts a cable TV show, Shootout, on which he interviews entertainers.
Along the way, he noted, he has had his share of failures. "Winston Churchill said that success can be measured by moving from failure to failure with enthusiasm. By that standard, I have been a giant success. I have had some of the most cataclysmic and highly public failures you could possibly imagine. I had a major league hockey team in Las Vegas, the 16th largest market. The audience didn't give a puck, and nobody did very well.... I made movies like Bonfire of the Vanities, where people tried to walk out even when they showed it on planes."
Guber said he has learned that to lead and succeed, you need to manage three inevitable "states": fear, uncertainty and change. Everybody has fear, he says, "but does it catalyze you or paralyze you? You cannot afford in leadership today to be risk averse. You cannot. Otherwise you'll just be out of business." And even while embracing risk, he said, it is important to keep in mind that certainty is an illusion. "As soon as you're certain, you calcify all the thinking. Uncertainty is the cauldron in which creativity lives."
Anyone Can Do It
Uncertainty makes for a complicated business environment, but leaders can help employees embrace the goals mandated in that environment, Guber suggested, adding that the tool to do so is available to all. "Narrative bonds information to an emotional experience," he said. There is no need to be in the movie business to tell effective stories. Everyone is "a factory of old stories. So when you want your tribe, your group, your human resources people, your executives, your customers, your shareholders to do something, you have to remember you've already got something playing on the record machine in your head."
He doesn't suggest conjuring up random anecdotes. Rather, the goal should be to form narrative out of a situation at hand, and make others feel like characters in the drama. It's about giving others a story to imagine and tell others as they embark on a project.
Guber feels there's an element of magic in transforming people's thinking in such a manner, and he used MAGIC as an anagrammatic device to drive home his idea. MAGIC, he said, stands for Motivating your Audience to a Goal Interactively with great Content.
To illustrate Motivation, he told the story of how, while running his own firm in the 1980s, he got Warner CEO Terry Semel to finance the movie, Gorillas in the Mist. "It was a movie nobody wanted to make," Guber said. "She leaves a man for a gorilla. The gorilla dies. She dies. Shot in the Congo." Semel's response: "It's too expensive; it's too far and who's going to want to see a movie about a gorilla?" So Guber told Semel he had the story wrong. "It's about shining a light on the fact that these creatures are only one click away in the gene pool from us. We're their partner on this planet. It makes a case for who we are."
Guber offered to put his own money into the project -- and this, too, was part of his storytelling. "If you want to move somebody, you have to be congruent: You've got to have your feet, your heart, your wallet and your tongue going in the same direction. As soon as they see those things going in different directions, you don't seem authentic. Authenticity must shine through." Finally, with Semel still refusing to fund the picture, Guber lay down on the floor in the executive's office, as if a gorilla himself. Eventually, Guber says, Semel relented, saying that if Guber could stick to his budget, he could make the movie.
The A in MAGIC is for Audience, Guber said. Think of your listeners, even in business, as an audience. Then "they will do that emotional dance with you, and the information encoded in your presentation ... will find resonance. It will be nested in that emotional experience. They will remember it. And it will be actionable."
He recalled how, in 1989, the company he headed, Columbia Pictures, was being acquired by Sony. Employee morale at Columbia was fizzling; many expected the company to be broken up or resold quickly by the Japanese giant. He needed a way to unite his staff -- and says he got an idea from Columbia Pictures' own classic, Lawrence of Arabia. That epic was about pulling disparate groups together around a seemingly impossible goal (to defeat the Turks in the city of Aqaba). He showed the movie to his employees and made Aqaba a buzzword in the company to give people a sense of purpose. Many successes followed, "and the company is still owned by Sony," he said.
The G is MAGIC for Goal, he added. "Goals are very important, and it's okay to be very up front with them."
The I is for interactivity. Make your audience part of the story and give them stories to remember. "We're doing the Frank Sinatra story now," he noted, setting up an example. "We got the rights to do it, with Leonardo DiCaprio and Martin Scorsese. Frank Sinatra was a beast, a tough guy. But he would be up on stage, with maybe 2,000 people in the audience, and then he would pick out some woman and start singing to her. Everyone was jealous, even the guys. And then, in the third act of his performance, he would bring her up and have her sing a song with him." Give your audience a story to remember and to tell, Guber said, and the story will live on. "They will tell somebody else their experience, not yours."
The C in Guber's magic formula is for Content. "That's' the Holy Grail," he said. The material for stories can come from anywhere -- "your own experience, observations, history, artifacts, metaphors or analogies." Collect stories, bank them away and make them part of your business leadership life, he advised.
"We don't teach it in medical school. We don't teach it in law school. Most of the teaching is content regurgitation, not about emotional resonance," Guber stated. "But you have to move people's hearts before you move their wallet or their minds."
Saving the Story (The Film Version)
LOS ANGELES — The movie world has been fretting for years about the collapse of stardom.
Now there are growing fears that another chunk of film architecture is looking wobbly: the story.
In league with a handful of former Hollywood executives, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Laboratory plans to do something about that on Tuesday, with the creation of a new Center for Future Storytelling.
The center is envisioned as a "labette," a little laboratory, that will examine whether the old way of telling stories — particularly those delivered to the millions on screen, with a beginning, a middle and an end — is in serious trouble.
Its mission is not small. "The idea, as we move forward with 21st-century storytelling, is to try to keep meaning alive," said David Kirkpatrick, a founder of the new venture.
Once president of the Paramount Pictures motion picture group, Mr. Kirkpatrick last year joined some former colleagues in starting Plymouth Rock Studios, a planned Massachusetts film production center that will provide a home for M.I.T.'s storytelling lab while supporting it with $25 million over seven years.
Arguably, the movies are as entertaining as ever. With a little help from holiday comedies like Yes Man with Jim Carrey and Bedtime Stories with Adam Sandler, the domestic motion picture box office appears poised to match last year's gross revenues of $9.7 billion, a record.
But Mr. Kirkpatrick and company are not alone in their belief that Hollywood's ability to tell a meaningful story has been nibbled at by text messages, interrupted by cellphone calls and supplanted by everything from Twitter to Guitar Hero.
"I even saw a plasma screen above a urinal," said Peter Guber, the longtime film producer and former chairman of Sony Pictures Entertainment who contends that traditional narrative — the kind with unexpected twists and satisfying conclusions — has been drowned out by noise and visual clutter.
A common gripe is that gamelike, open-ended series like Pirates of the Caribbean or Spider-Man have eroded filmmakers' ability to wrap up their movies in the third act. Another is that a preference for proven, outside stories like the Harry Potter books is killing Hollywood's appetite for original storytelling.
Mr. Guber, who teaches a course at the University of California, Los Angeles, called "Navigating in a Narrative World," is singularly devoted to story. Almost 20 years ago Mr. Guber made a colossal hit of Warner Brothers' Batman after joining others in laboring over the story for the better part of a decade.
But in the last few years, Mr. Guber said, big films with relatively small stories have been hurried into production to meet release dates. Meanwhile, hundreds of pictures with classic narratives have been eclipsed by other media — he mentioned The Duchess a period drama that foundered last month as potential viewers were presumably distracted by the noise of a presidential election — or suppressed by louder, less story-driven brethren.
"How do you compete with Transformers asked Mr. Guber.
Ultimately, he blames the audience for the perceived breakdown in narrative quality: in the end, he argued, consumers get what they want. Bobby Farrelly, a prolific writer, and director with his brother Peter of comedies like There's Something About Mary and Shallow Hal, concurred.
"If you go off the beaten path, say, give them something bittersweet, they're going to tell you they're disappointed," Mr. Farrelly said. He spoke from his home in Massachusetts, where he is working on the script for a Three Stooges picture, and said he missed complex stories like that of The Graduate.
At the Sundance Institute, as it happens, other deep thinkers tend to think that film storytelling is doing just fine.
"Storytelling is flourishing in the world at a level I can't even begin to understand," said Ken Brecher, the institute's executive director. Mr. Brecher spoke last week, as his colleagues continued sorting through 9,000 films — again, a record — that have been submitted for the coming Sundance Film Festival.
The festival, set for Jan. 15 to Jan. 25 in Park City, Utah, will have story as its theme. The idea,
Mr. Brecher said, is to identify film stories that have defined the festival during its 25-year run, and figure out what made them tick. (Mr. Brecher said the final choices had not been made and declined to identify candidates.)
If anything, Mr. Brecher added, technology has simply brought mass storytelling, on film or otherwise, to people who once thought Hollywood had cornered the business.
"One of the most exciting things I've run into is a storyteller who's been texting his stories into the urban centers of Kenya," said Mr. Brecher, an anthropologist by training.
The people at M.I.T., in any case, may figure out whether classic storytellers like Homer, Shakespeare and Spielberg have had their day.
Starting in 2010, a handful of faculty members — "principal investigators," the university calls them — will join graduate students, undergraduate interns and visitors from the film and book worlds in examining, among other things, how virtual actors and "morphable" projectors (which instantly change the appearance of physical scenes) might affect a storytelling process that has already been considerably democratized by digital delivery.
A possible outcome, they speculate, is that future stories might not stop in Hollywood all. "The business model is definitely being transformed, maybe even blown apart," said Frank Moss, a former entrepreneur who is now the media lab's director.
Mr. Kirkpatrick is not completely at ease with that prospect, partly because his Plymouth Rock Studios, a $480 million enterprise, will need scores of old-fashioned, story-based Hollywood productions to fill the 14 soundstages it plans to build.
In a telephone interview last week, Mr. Kirkpatrick said he might take a cue from Al Gore, who used a documentary film, An Inconvenient Truth, to heighten concern about global warming.
Mr. Kirkpatrick is now considering an alarm-bell documentary of his own, he said.
Its tentative title: "A World Without Story."
View Story Time
Peter Guber Navigator of Narrative
Michael Jackson Off the Wall
UCLA Explores Art Of Stories
Upcoming courses offer unique studies
Everyone's got a story, but only the most successful know how to artfully exploit them.
That's the underlying theme of "Navigating a Narrative World," an upcoming UCLA course to be conducted by Robert Rosen, dean of the school of theater, film and television, and Peter Guber, longtime producer and professor. Duo have recruited an impressive array of leaders from business, law, politics, sports and entertainment to share their experiences with the class.
Among those skedded: feminist lawyer Gloria Allred, HBO Films prexy Colin Callender, spiritual guru Deepak Chopra, NBA coach Pat Riley and Starbucks Entertainment prexy Ken Lombard. Daily Variety editor-in-chief Peter Bart, who co-hosts AMC's "Shootout" with Guber, will also share his insights with the class, which begins April 2.
Course will explore the different types of narratives that permeate our work and everyday lives. Participants will learn how to find and create their own narratives.
Guber has been teaching at UCLA for decades in addition to his work as a studio chief, and, more recently, as head of Mandalay Entertainment Group. Rosen joined UCLA in 1974; he was named dean in 1998.
Spin Your Success
African Water Rights in DeNile
What happens when a group of film and television producers, master modern storytellers, travels to Africa, specifically Ethiopia, the cradle of Man and the source of all storytelling, on adventure? They find stories, some with an unexpected twist. A large catalog of celebrated American films and programs is credited to members of this entourage, such as The Color Purple, the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Rain Man, Gorillas in the Mist, the Twilight series, Batman and even the television hit Mad Men.
One of the goals was to travel to the Omo Valley, where a dam under construction will force the relocation of thousands who have lived in relative isolation for millennia, relying on oral traditions to teach and inspire, to connect and tell purposeful stories that celebrate their past and plot their future. One of the great advantages distinguishing Man from beast evolved here with the faculty to tell stories, the ability to pass on a common history, to communicate an ethos and social contracts, to trade techniques and lessons (how best to hunt the mastodon) and to lay the foundation for prospects and opportunity. This state-of-the-heart technology was the glue that connected community, and developed society.
But now the dam, which will bring needed hydropower and irrigation for an unhinging population, threatens the way of life of several tribes, as well as their sacred lands, and will bury dreams and touchstones. A paradox is that these aboriginal storytellers, who birthed tales that stretch the continuum of time to the present, now do not have the technology or tools to communicate to the wider audience their plight, their opinions, their stories. In a way, this is an old story, associated with every major dam ever constructed, but this is the first time the earth's original storytellers are about to have their voices cut.
But the real unanticipated plot turn came later, further north. We arranged to run the rapids of the Blue Nile, from its beginnings as it efflues from Lake Tana, largest lake in Ethiopia, third largest in Africa, down an 18-mile whitewater sprint to the lip of the 150'-high Blue Nile Falls, second largest in Africa.
James Bruce, in his search for the source of the Nile, came upon the falls in 1770 and described it thusly: "The river ... fell in one sheet of water, without any interval, above half an English mile in breadth, with a force and a noise that was truly terrible, and which stunned and made me, for a time, perfectly dizzy. A thick fume, or haze, covered the fall all around, and hung over the course of the stream both above and below, marking its track, though the water was not seen.... It was a most magnificent sight, that ages, added to the greatest length of human life, would not deface or eradicate from my memory."
The day before our raft trip we stood before the immense manitou of the Blue Nile Falls, watching the water spout and bloom like gargantuan brown mushrooms and the mist shape and move like a time-lapse sequence of clouds. We hiked to its base, and shivered beneath the raw, deep voice of nature and an architecture supported by the brilliant beams of rainbows. The river trip was being led by Pasquale Scaturro, the explorer who made the first and only full descent of the Blue Nile from its source all the way to Alexandria, Egypt in 2003. After viewing the Falls, he scouted the river for our expedition to begin the day following, and pronounced the river level and conditions ideal.
With keen expectations we launched down the russet-skinned river the morning next, and within minutes rounded a bend and purled into a bloat of snorting hippos. One female, annoyed with our passage, began to charge one of the rafts. Some claim more deaths in Africa each year from hippos, more than any other wildlife. Proportionately the fattest animals on earth, hippos nonetheless can gallop as fast as a horse, and routinely turn over boats and snap occupants in two.
But the real scare came another hour later as we cascaded down a small set of rapids and lodged on the rocks. The rocks had been covered by the river's flow the day before. Now, we had to climb out of the rafts and push and wrestle them through the cataract. The next set was worse. And beyond, worse yet. And the banks were stained wet with recent water flow. The river was literally disappearing beneath us, draining like a bathtub. How could this be? There was no dam upstream...only Lake Tana. Finally, we could navigate no further, the river almost dry, and we had to abort the trip, and trek across burning basaltic fields to the road.
In the nearby lakeside town of Bahir Dar, fishermen and ferryboat drivers, who carried pilgrims to island Coptic monasteries (one of which claimed to have housed the Ark of the Covenant), were puzzled that their boats were listing on wet sand as the lake waters receded. But one Ethiopian technician, a former UN representative, shared the explanation. A 26-kilometer-long tunnel draining Lake Tana for electricity and irrigation had just been opened. Called The Tana Beles project, it is the largest hydropower plant in Ethiopia, with a generating capacity of 460MW. The water gushes out of the tunnel and falls 275 meters onto four turbines, and then flows out of the plant where it irrigates dry plains, never re-entering the Nile. Like its counterpart on the Omo, it is designed to help an exploding population (83 million in a country twice the size of Texas), yet perhaps at cost to not only the rare rafters, but to some 80 million people downstream in Egypt, as well as another 30 million along the Nile in Sudan.
Discovering the source of the Nile was the great 19th-century geographical quest that consumed such as David Livingstone, Richard Burton and John Speke, and many others. While the White Nile is the longer of the two streams that join in Khartoum to create the Nile proper, it is the Blue Nile that contributes about 85 percent of the water that powers Egypt, and most of the precious silt that nourishes its banks. If the Blue Nile dries up, or is dammed or diverted in a significant way, Egypt will die.
In 1929, there was an agreement between Egypt and Britain stipulating that "no irrigation or power works or measures are to be constructed or taken on the River Nile or its tributaries... which would entail prejudice to the interests of Egypt." Since Ethiopia had never been a British colony, or part of any European power for that matter, except for the five years (1936-1941) of occupation by Fascist Italy, it maintained that the agreement had no legal effect on it.
Nonetheless, Ethiopia looked elsewhere for its power, and for the next 80 years allowed the Blue Nile free-flowing.
In 1970, Anwar Sadat, then President of Egypt, hearing rumors that Emperor Haile Selassie was thinking of damming the Blue Nile, threatened to go to war with Ethiopia. He stated: "Any action that would endanger the waters of the Blue Nile will be faced with a firm reaction on the part of Egypt, even if that action should lead to war."
Draining Lake Tana is a technical sidestep, as the Blue Nile begins as it flows out of the lake. The half-billion dollar project has been kept as quiet as possible, away from the eyes of much of the international community, though Egypt, suddenly aware, has warned that water rights in this case are a "red line," and the project could lead to war. Meles Zenawi, the prime minister of Ethiopia, told Al Jazeera that Egypt will not be able to stop his country from building dams on the river.
IN Addis Ababa, we sought out Donald Booth, the newly-appointed US Ambassador, who is steering U.S. involvement with economic development, human rights, and environmental issues. He appealed for our participation and support in viewing several short films on "Democracy," produced by young Ethiopian filmmakers, funded by the US State Department, and distributed on YouTube. The project gives apparatus to aspiring storytellers, allows them voice and audience. But so much here remains soundless. When we asked the Ambassador about the Tana Beles project, he said he had not heard of it, and vowed to travel to Lake Tana to check it out. It is a tale in the lobster trap of African politics; a narrative suppressed.
Every story needs a resolution, and this one has yet to be written. The best stories evoke an emotional response, touch a deep cord, and motivate action and change. The oldest storytellers on earth spun their yarns along these waterways, and they do still, though without the reach and means to affect their fates. Yet, perhaps through accident or providence, it was their "tell" to a lineage of foreign visitors, a small group of modern storytellers with the internet and digital media in their kits, that lit a campfire of compassion, and provoked this story-offering to a global public, who in turn, if inspired, could influence the outcome, perhaps in a way the forerunners of all storytelling would approve.
Peter Guber Leads the Way as Storyteller
"Leaders are great storytellers," said entertainment industry stalwart Peter Guber in a lecture hosted by the USC School of Policy, Planning, and Development (SPPD) at the Davidson Continuing Education Center on Nov. 11.
Guber, the founder and CEO of Mandalay Entertainment, was the guest lecturer as part of the Dennis and Brooks Holt Visiting Professorship in Communication and Public Policy.
His speech on "Enhancing Leadership Through the Power of Oral Storytelling" drew students and faculty from the School of Cinematic Arts, the USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism and the USC Marshall School of Business in addition to SPPD.
Jack Knott, the C. Erwin and Ione L. Piper Dean and Professor at SPPD, explained that the Holt Professorship "focuses on the incredibly important role of communication in a democratic society and market-based economy." It was established by a gift from Holt and his wife Brooks.
Holt, a longtime member of the SPPD Board of Councilors and founding chairman and CEO of U.S. International Media, attended USC on a baseball scholarship and called it an honor to be able to give back.
"Whatever successes I've had in my life, I credit USC," he said after attending Guber's lecture, about which he added: "To sit in the presence of an industry icon and be informed and entertained at the same time is a rare event."
Guber's entertainment career started in 1968 at Columbia Pictures, where he quickly rose to studio chief. He went on to become chairman and CEO of Sony Pictures and in 1995 founded Mandalay Entertainment, which comprises movies, TV, professional sports and new media. Guber is also a professor of theatre, film and television at UCLA and hosts the AMC series Shootout.
Films for which Guber was producer or executive producer — including Rain Man, Batman, The Color Purple, Midnight Express and Flashdance — have earned more than $3 billion worldwide and garnered more than 50 Academy Award nominations. Despite these accomplishments, the media mogul chose to begin his lecture with examples of
"cataclysmic and highly public" failures: the unpopular Bonfire of the Vanities movie and a losing hockey team under the Mandalay banner.
"Success and failure are millimeters apart," Guber said. When recently looking back on his 40-year career, Guber discovered the "game changer" is the "ability to tell oral stories to influence, empower and impassion others to believe and act with you."
Whether you want to motivate someone to act with you, buy your brand or invest in your company, you have to "orally narrate your offering ... to make it memorable, resonant and actionable," Guber said. More importantly, he added, your story has to aim for the heart, not the head or wallet.
He called his approach "state-of-the-heart technologies" because it involves connecting with a person emotionally through a story that moves him to take action.
Practicing what he preached, Guber engaged the crowd with pure storytelling, catchy aphorisms and generous amounts of humor. With the energy of a motivational speaker, he guided audience members through the process of tapping into their storytelling power: knowing your audience, making your goal known upfront and motivating your audience with interesting, interactive content to join your mission.
To demonstrate the importance of vulnerability in motivating your audience, Guber shared a story about trying to convince a Warner Bros. CEO to go ahead with production of Gorillas in the Mist, a film the studio considered risky and expensive and was ready to cancel after two and a half years of work.
When his plea to give the vanishing apes a voice wasn't getting through, Guber laid on the floor in the CEO's office as a "failed gorilla" until the answer he got was yes.
Guber illustrated the importance of finding what interests your audience with an anecdote about Fidel Castro.
In the 1980s, Guber needed the Cuban dictator's permission to film an episode of Oceanquest, a documentary-style ocean exploration show, in Havana Harbor.
When Castro met him on a boat there with the crew and diving equipment standing by, Guber noticed his fascination with a huge tooth (which he showed the audience) from an extinct shark that was an ancestor of the great white and suggested that, like the fossil tooth, this show could be a reminder through the ages of Castro's stewardship of Havana Harbor.
Castro gave the go-ahead.
Though he also revealed "the power of narrative" with personal tales featuring Nelson Mandela and Muhammad Ali, Guber stressed that this leadership tool is within everyone.
"It is not something for Spielberg and Lucas alone. It is not something for Grisham alone," he said. "It's for anybody who wants to involve other people in their mission and their goal."