Hollywood’s Peter Guber: 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.”

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