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


The Art of the Business Narrative

S+B: Was there a moment when you realized the importance of purposeful stories in business?
My partners and I owned a triple-A minor-league baseball team — a franchise worth $45 million. We thought we could convince the mayor and the city leaders of Las Vegas to build a state-of-the-art 10,000-seat stadium. It seemed like it should be a no-brainer for them, given the costs, the attendance and revenue projections, and the impact we could show it would have on brand recognition and community loyalty. It took a long time to set up a meeting with the mayor. We came in with all the information, and walked him through the facts.

At the end, the mayor said, “Peter, didn’t you shoot part of Rain Man here?” I said we had. He said, “Well, what’s the next picture you’re going to bring here?” I reminded him that the stadium would be a fantastic business opportunity.

“No, I need something big. I need a game changer. Why don’t you bring the Dodgers here?”

We left without a deal. He said he’d think about it. Only later did I realize the story I could have told him. Not the facts and figures, and not even a story about baseball — but a story about Las Vegas, a city I knew well because I owned its hockey team. Not counting tourists and visitors, a million people live there. At any given time, one-third of them are asleep, because so many of them work at night. But in other ways, they’re the same as everyone else. They want clean, comfortable, fun entertainment for themselves and their kids, where they can feel connected to each other and to their city. I could have told the mayor about one family who came to watch the hockey team 13 times in one season. To families like that one, I wasn’t merely the owner of a franchise; I was the steward of that team in the community. If the mayor had heard that story, I think he would have welcomed the deal.

S+B: How do you bring this kind of one-on-one narrative proficiency to a larger organizational scale?
Start by building a relationship with your audience — your customers, employees, whoever it is. Study who they are and what they care about. Then craft your story as if you’re talking to one person.

In 1989, when I started as head of Sony Pictures Entertainment, it was a huge, disparate company, with people in Burbank, New York, San Francisco, and overseas. The task of pulling everyone together seemed impossible. I remembered the scene from David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia when T.E. Lawrence pulls all the Arab tribal leaders together by convincing them that they can successfully launch a sneak attack on the Ottoman port city of Aqaba. The film shows Peter O’Toole, who played Lawrence, telling the leaders a story about the guns at Aqaba. They faced the sea and could not be turned around, since the desert behind them was considered impassable. By crossing the desert on camels, they could surprise the Turks and win — and they did.

I said, “We are also a disparate group of people, from different businesses — television, theater, distribution, everything. But we’ve got to become one tribe. So our cry will be ‘Aqaba!’” We gave out little pictures of O’Toole as Lawrence pondering in the desert as a reminder of the story of pulling together. Today, the company is still there. All the other motion picture companies that were bought by foreign enterprises are gone. At the time, I didn’t know what I was doing. I did it instinctively. Now, I do it deliberately, which is about 5,000 times easier.

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