Are you aware of the power of your back stories?
We all have back stories that can be negative or positive running silently on a continuous loop in our heads. They are born from profound experiences which we retell to ourselves incessantly in the form of a narrative. The negative ones can be time bombs which can sabotage your success in moving others to your call to action. So you must stand guard at the portals of your mind and be sure to press “delete” on those back stories.
Now your customers, clients, patrons, employees, investors and audiences who you are looking to convince, sell or motivate, also have back stories. This requires that you do your emotional homework. The more you know about the back stories that run your stakeholders, the more you can avoid triggering them as time bombs, or draft behind them, if they’re positive stories, as hidden treasures. This preparation pays untold dividends.
He was already shaking his head “no” and I hadn’t even opened my mouth!
The “he” was Terry Semel, the then Chairman of Warner Bros. I had been summoned to his office (an event that rarely resulted in a happy ending, triggering my own negative back stories and sphincter arrest) to discuss Gorillas in the Mist. This was a future movie based on a true story about the great silverback gorillas in Central Africa who were on the verge of complete extinction, in which I invested great emotional, financial and intellectual resources. My mission, or perhaps madness, was my compulsion to have their plight brought to broad public attention with a successful, entertaining film which might change their fate.
Ignoring his wagging head, I aimed at Terry’s heart, telling him the story of these magnificent, imperiled creatures who share nearly 96% of our human genes and the impact this movie could have on their survival. I had his attention.
Semel wasn’t particularly interested in that. His exhortation was that the project was just too risky. After all, it was the story about a woman who leaves her lover, enamored with the giant silverback gorillas whose well being and very survival was under siege from poachers. The ending, which is so important to a film, seemingly had her dying at the hands of an unknown assassin. Clearly on its face, it contained none of the ingredients for a sure-fire hit. Yet, I was prepared to bet on the compelling impact of this film.
Luckily, I had done my emotional homework.
I learned Terry’s hidden issue was that a prior film, Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, which Warners’ had produced featuring humans portraying gorillas in gorilla suits, had run terribly over budget because the suits constantly over-heated and delayed production. The film also failed at the box office. Clearly, Terry, though he said nothing, didn’t want to relive the extreme agony of that story.Ignoring his wagging head, I aimed at Terry’s heart, telling him the story of these magnificent, imperiled creatures who share nearly 96% of our human genes and the impact this movie could have on their survival. I had his attention. Embedded in my story, but without ever directly mentioning Greystoke, I told Terry that we wouldn’t use humans in gorilla suits. Instead, we’d photograph the actual gorillas in their natural habitat and let them write the script which was also a much less expensive option. Semel looked at me in silence. Now I had his attention. But, I needed his intention to make the film. Demonstrating the authenticity of my story and commitment, I offered to put our fee up as a guarantee against the completion costs of the film.
By doing my emotional homework and understanding Semel’s negative back story, I was able to turn a time bomb into a buried treasure. Semel went on to green light the movie and Gorillas in the Mist was nominated for five Academy Awards, and the gorillas are still here today.