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 / Summer 2011 / Issue 63(originally published by Booz & Company)


The Art of the Business Narrative

Hollywood producer, executive, and entrepreneur Peter Guber makes the case that telling purposeful stories is an essential skill for leaders.

When a film producer publishes a management book, one expects a little name-dropping as well as a point of view somewhat removed from the day-to-day concerns of most enterprises. Peter Guber’s Tell to Win: Connect, Persuade, and Triumph with the Hidden Power of Story (Crown Business, 2011) may have those qualities, but it’s also keenly perceptive about one critical characteristic of successful executive leaders everywhere: Their ability to hone and distill the complexities of a business strategy (or a call to action) into a simple, clear, and emotionally compelling narrative.

Guber has been around consummate storytellers throughout his career. His film credits as producer or executive producer include such hits as Batman, Flashdance, and The Color Purple. He also produced the 1988 Barry Levinson movie Rain Man, which serves as an example in Tell to Win of the nature of a business story’s protagonist. The true hero of the film is not the autistic savant played by Dustin Hoffman, but his brother, played by Tom Cruise — because the audience can identify with the changes that Cruise’s character must undergo to manage a challenge successfully.

Guber is chairman and CEO of Mandalay Entertainment Group, the company he cofounded in 1995. Before that, between 1989 and 1995, he was chairman and CEO of Sony Pictures Entertainment. His other entertainment interests include ownership in several sports teams, including the Golden State Warriors basketball team. He is also a professor at the University of California at Los Angeles Anderson School of Management. Intrigued by his concept that telling purposeful stories is a critical managerial capability, we sat down with him in New York in January 2011. 

S+B: The basic premise of your book — that behind every great business endeavor is a great story — is not obvious at first glance.
That’s because business is often seen as a purely rational act: marshaling facts and figures to get someone to buy your product or service. But although information, data, and analytics are important to support any proposition, they are unmemorable in and of themselves. If you really want to create fans of your business who will become apostles and advocates for you, you have to use a narrative. That’s the way people are wired.

Suppose you go to a restaurant. There’s a story there. It may involve the trouble that the founder took to bring the restaurant into existence, the way the chef developed the recipes, or the way the food is arranged on the plate. If the story is good enough, you’ll end up metabolizing those facts along with the food. You’ll tell it to other potential customers. “You know, I went to this unbelievable restaurant and every menu item came from a different place in the world the chef had visited.” In any successful business, that kind of process is always happening.

S+B: What’s the difference between the kind of storytelling that takes place in a film like Rain Man and the kind that a businessperson might want to do?
Barry Levinson’s purpose with Rain Man wasn’t just to support autism. He wanted to create terrific entertainment. But he also didn’t want it to be empty calories. He wanted some real value in it.

In business, by contrast, the story is told for an explicit purpose. You tell it to encourage the other person to see the value proposition you’re offering, and to make that person want to be part of it. Without that story, you have only transactional elements and no relationship. Transactions happen only once; repeat business requires relationships. Howard Schultz couldn’t have built Starbucks on a transactional basis; he can’t get enough new customers every day. He needs them to come back. This relational element depends on purposeful storytelling.

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