Peter Guber on 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.

Guber: 100%.

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 Bibles 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 …s 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.

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