03/01

Tell to Win: Peter Guber on Story and Radio

Peter Guber is the former chairman and CEO of Sony Pictures and currently heads the Mandalay Entertainment Group which presents hit films such as The Kids Are All Right and recently partnered in acquiring the NBA’s Golden State Warriors.  Among the award-winning films Guber has produced or executive produced are Midnight Express, Gorillas in the Mist, Batman, and Rain Man.  Peter is the author of a great new best-selling book called Tell to Win: Connect, Persuade, and Triumph with the Hidden Power of Story. As Peter writes: “Move listeners’ hearts and their feet and wallets will follow.”

What follows is an abbreviated transcript of our conversation.  For the full flavor of my conversation with Peter click on the audio link below, sit back, and enjoy.

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Tell To Win seems like a subtle twist on Sell To Win.  Why swap “sell” for “tell”?

This isn’t storytelling, which we all know about – Once Upon A Time – it’s telling purposeful stories.  And if you can’t tell it, you can’t sell it.

Ultimately, whatever it is, your ideas to your children, your family, your business, your employees, your customers, your clients… anybody.  The ultimate point is that you’re going to have to get in the room, breathe the same air, look in their eyes – one, ten, or twenty people – and let them know what you’re made of and what the product you’re trying to propose is made of.  If you can’t tell it, you’re skunked.  Ultimately, that is the big game changer.

What is the power, what is the secret, of crafting a great story?

The secret is there is no secret.  It’s inside you.  It’s not gift from me to you.  This is the way you’re wired.  For 40,000 years this has been wired in, and it’s only in the last nanosecond that we have electronic media.  My aunt is 105 today, so when she was born there was nothing but the oral narrative or a newspaper.  Even a few generations before that, 300 to 400 years, not even any written words that the public was getting.  So we’re wired to create stories.  That’s the difference-maker that allowed us to socially organize.

LinkedIn and Facebook and Twitter and MySpace didn’t create social cohesion; we did with language.  We created all that because without that organizing principle we couldn’t get people to work with us, follow the rules and values of the tribe and survive.  That’s what allowed us to move from the bottom of the food chain to the top.  So we have it inside of us.

You need to recognize that all the elements of telling the sell, telling the win, telling the tell are the first part, and the second part is the story itself.

The story provides the emotional transportation for your offering.  It emotionalizes everything and therefore the audience metabolizes what you want them to do, not just hears it.

And then the secret is word of mouth.  They pay it forward.  What do they pay forward?  The story as theirs and that’s what moves the meter.

They own the story; that was one of your points.

They own the story.  Right on.

You make the point quite compellingly that we have way too much dependence on statistics, case studies, PowerPoint, that in many ways we’re arguing with data when we should be arguing with story, right?

I think data, facts, and information – analytics – are critical.  They’re important.  They’re absolutely essential.  They’re proof of process.  You have to have that resource to validate everything.  But the resourcefulness, the ability to narrate those artifices, those words, data, facts, statistics, into an offering, and to give it a contextual value, to move the meter, to bond it with emotion, that’s the secret.

Otherwise those things will not be memorable.  You don’t remember those things; you remember the experience, and the story renders the experience – that has always been the case.

Always, always, always, always, always, always.

No gift from me to you, that’s the way you’re wired.

And that’s what makes great movies work, right?

Always, because what are movies?  They are the ultimate emotional transportation business – a suspension of disbelief; you’re swept into the hero’s shoes or the villain’s shoes.  You take that journey.  You’re changed, your point of view changes,  your experience changes, and what do you do?  You don’t tell all the facts and figures of the movie; you talk about your experience of the movie.

It made me laugh… it made me cry… I felt this… I felt that.  And then you say “and it changed my mind about this..” or “it changed my mind about that…” or “it made my mind up about this…” or “it confirmed my view about that…” That’s how you remember it.  That’s how you recall it.  That’s how you use it.  And that’s why the momentum-getter for everything is to be able to emotionalize your offering.

That doesn’t mean trick, manipulate, or even manage; it means honestly, authentically utilize that resource as a power tool.

Let’s talk about the DNA that makes a great story.  You have three central ingredients in the book, and I wonder if you could talk about them briefly – challenge, struggle and resolution.

Let me tell you a story that I think best indicates it.

When I was running Sony, Michael Jackson was doing the music for so many of our critical albums, and suddenly he wanted to be in the movie business.  I had to go to his house for lunch, and I was concerned because I wasn’t convinced he understood what drama is or what story is.  He knew melody and he knew performance but what’s the likelihood that he’d be able to execute?

So at lunch I asked him if he understood how drama works differently from music.

“Do you understand how drama works?” I asked him.

And he looked at me, smiled and said “come up to my room.”

I went upstairs and outside his room he had a big glass terrarium.  Inside the terrarium, he pointed to a huge snake the size of my thigh.  It was just enormous!  I think it was a boa constrictor.  He pointed and he said “Muscles.”

I said “Muscles?”

“Yeah, that’s his name.”

And he pointed to the other end of the terrarium and there’s this little white mouse just shaking and trembling.

I said “oh my gosh.”

He said “you know what’s going to happen?”

I said “yeah, he’s gonna eat him.  So what does that have to do with drama?”

“Aah” he said, “but you don’t know when, you don’t know how.  That’s the drama; not just that he’ll be eaten.”

Michael understood that drama meant challenge, struggle, and resolution – for the mouse and for the snake.  And we as the observer have that experience.

And then you could ask all the other questions:  Why doesn’t the snake strike right away?  Because it pumps the adrenalin to the mouse; the mouse is more tasty, more alive when he eats it, because he has to eat live food… you start learning all the information.

You’d never remember the information if you didn’t have that story!  I wouldn’t even remember to tell you the story.

And there are a lot of tasty mice to be devoured in Hollywood.

Yeah, that’s for sure.  Some rats too.

It seems to me radio is a natural venue for storytelling and it also seems to me that there is not that much storytelling on the radio.  Do you have any observations about that?

I grew up as a very young boy in Boston.  I used to put my head under the covers and listen to “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows.”  I used to listen to all these dramas on the radio late at night, and my imagination filled in all the pictures.

The idea is that words are artifices.  Pictures are artifices.  They’re designed to give you that emotional transportation, to suspend disbelief and make you part of the story.

Radio has always been able to do that.  Radio still does that in the news – in reporting narrative.  It just doesn’t do it the same way right now as television and the movies and other visual media – we have eyes, as well as ears.

It has been the same for every technology that has come along.  Every new technology in a sense is a prop.  3D is new technology.  Color was new technology.  All of those things enhance the verisimilitude of exactly this – putting you in the room face to face, making it as close as you can, giving all those tools to the artist so he can render the experience to the audience so they could experience what the artist was telling.  That’s always the way it would be.

The idea is the audio artist had to render the experience with a certain kind of words and texture and tone that didn’t have the visual component.  TV and movies bring that visual component.  So this has always been an inexorable challenge for everybody.  We all like different modes of transportation but ultimately we’ve got to get there, whether it’s the radio, or the movie, or the television or digital media on the internet, it’s only about transporting us and then downloading that information or valued proposition inside the story.  That’s what it’s about.

As the head of Mandalay, as someone at the center of the entertainment industry – someone who has a marketing agenda for your own content – where do you see radio fit relative to digital tools nowadays?

When you look at radio, you recognize that this is a tool that allows people to participate with their imagination as well as their ears.  Radio works phenomenally in the automobile.  It also works on the Internet as online radio.  It is not as disruptive as a movie in terms of capturing all your time, energy and attention.  When you go to a movie, you sit in a darkened theater, there is the pressure of the communal audience to behave in a certain way and for that two hours you sit there and you watch the movie.  There is nothing else going on.  They even ask you to shut the cell phones off.

Just look at the difference of radio – you’re driving in the car, or you’re listening while you’re doing something else, or you’re busy writing something or in conversation.  Radio can be less disruptive and more of an alternative to your lifestyle.  It’s not necessarily preemptive.

It can be preemptive, of course. If you listen to sports radio, for example, oh my God!  What goes on in sports radio and the talk back and forth; either they should do one of two things – find all those people and you can have a perfect sell to them or arrest a lot of them, too.  Their advocacy is incredible and they’re viral – they tell everybody about it.

Radio is a tool that is not going to go away.  There is a great deal of immediacy.  It may morph more and more to audio Internet radio.  That may ultimately be another channel of physical distribution for the medium.

So radio’s going to remain a robust arena for both the artist and the audience.

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