It's the Story, Stupid
The boom in Vegas was our golden ticket. This thought propelled me up
the Strip to meet with the city's political gatekeeper, Mayor Oscar
Goodman. As chairman of Mandalay Entertainment Group, I was determined
to ride the momentum that had turned Sin City family-friendly. So many
new residents had been drawn to Las Vegas in the early 2000s that the
construction crane was laughingly referred to as the city's official
bird, and all this wholesome expansion virtually guaranteed the business
home run that I was about to deliver for my company's professional
Our proposition: to build the ultimate state-of-the-art ballpark in the
entertainment capital of the world. Our agenda: to elevate our sports
entertainment business onto the national stage. Our success hinged on my
ability to persuade Las Vegas's chief politician to lead the campaign
for a municipal bond to fund this multimillion-dollar civic project. But
since this huge, iconic city currently had no quality professional
stadium, let alone the kind of cutting-edge venue that was Mandalay's
specialty, my proposal had to be a no-brainer for the mayor. Or so I
Mandalay Baseball at the time owned five professional minor-league
franchises across the country, including Single-A, Double-A, and
Triple-A teams, and our partners included basketball superstar Magic
Johnson; Heisman Trophy-winner Archie Griffin; and Tom Hicks, owner of
the Texas Rangers. There's nothing minor about the business of the minor
leagues, which attract more than 40 million fans each year, and our
profits validated that. We had an established track record of attracting
public money, winning local support, and building top-of-the-line
stadiums. Recently we'd acquired the Las Vegas Triple-A franchise of the
legendary LA Dodgers. Now we wanted to elevate this franchise by moving
its location from Cashman Field, the outdated university ballpark where
it currently played, and building the twenty-first-century world-class
stadium that Las Vegas's home team so richly deserved. As I arrived at
the mayor's headquarters, I thought, OK, let's play ball!
Even though I was late, the mayor made me wait. Goodman was a shrewd
wielder of power. The decor of his anteroom let you know you were
dealing with somebody in show business--he showed you his business
wherever you looked, from the replica of the iconic Las Vegas sign that
read, WELCOME TO FABULOUS MAYOR GOODMAN'S OFFICE, to the glass display
cases crammed with more awards and tchotchkes than I could count. There
were photos of Goodman with everyone from President Bill Clinton to
Michael Jackson and actors Tony Curtis and Steven Seagal. I even noticed
a pair of Muhammad Ali's boxing gloves.
Every detail of that office screamed, Major League! If only I'd paid
Finally the mayor was ready for me. But before I could get a word out,
he peppered me with talk about the movies I'd produced, executive
produced, or supervised, especially the two--Rain Man and Bugsy--that
were made in Vegas. He asked if I had any plans to make another film in
his fair city. Then he quoted the box office numbers that had lifted
Batman into the stratosphere. I took all this foreplay as proof that
Goodman was the perfect audience for my perfect pitch.
I told him I'd come to deliver box office success for Vegas--this time
not through movies but through baseball. As proof, I reeled off the data
that I was sure would mesmerize him: figures proving Mandalay kept
design and construction costs down, quality up, and completion on
schedule. Our most recent stadium, built for our Single-A Cincinnati
Reds team in Dayton, Ohio, featured amenities such as upper-deck seating
and luxury suites, making it unique among minor-league ballparks at the
I gestured toward the window view of cranes marching across the desert.
"All those new hometown fans in Las Vegas deserve a legacy team and
ballpark of their own."
The mayor considered this statement. Then he asked, "Can you deliver a
major-league team here?"
Had someone dubbed the word "major" into his mouth? He'd stopped
listening the instant I said "minor-league," but I was so caught up in
my facts and figures that I thought he was just confused. "This is
professional baseball, all major-league affiliates," I assured him.
"You'll be able to ride on the back of the most storied team in pro
history--the Los Angeles Dodgers."
He shook his head. "We're overdue for something really, really big."
"What I'm proposing is huge," I insisted. "In the years since our
stadium opened in Dayton, we've sold out every single game. That's an
unprecedented phenomenon. And we intend to surpass it here."
Goodman shot me a cold squint. "This ain't Dayton, kiddo."
Even though I met with the mayor several more times, bringing him to my
home in Los Angeles and presenting him with several more decks of killer
data, my efforts only proved that you never get a second chance to make
a first impression. And I never even made it to first base with my
"guaranteed" home run.
This failure haunted me. How had I managed so decisively to turn our
winning odds to a loss in Vegas? The metrics certainly weren't to blame.
Not long after striking out with Goodman, a car dealer out of Detroit
named Derek Stevens attended a game at Cashman Field and was excited by
exactly the same vision we'd had, that of building Las Vegas a
professional ballpark. Good luck! We sold him our Las Vegas Triple-A
franchise for a then record price, making a handsome profit for
Mandalay. But my business goal had been to turn Vegas into the engine
that would lift our company to the next level. The economic windfall was
little consolation. I'd lost the game I came to play.
Failure, however, is an inevitable cul de sac on the road to success. As
we began crafting a new strategy, one of my Mandalay colleagues
remarked, "We'll have to change our story."
And that's when the lightbulb turned on: Ahha! You forgot to tell a
I'd thrown a powerful barrage of raw facts at Goodman--data, statistics,
records, forecasts--but I didn't organize them in any way to engage his
emotions. No wonder he hadn't swung at my offering!
"Stupid" was right. I'm in the entertainment business! If anybody should
know the strategic difference between a data dump and a winning story, I
should. I'd produced dozens of films and television programs. Before
starting Mandalay, I'd been studio chief at Columbia Pictures,
co-chairman of Casablanca Record and Filmworks, CEO of Polygram
Pictures, and chairman and CEO of Sony Pictures Entertainment. My core
business was telling stories to move people! Furthermore, as a full
professor in the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television, I'd taught
just about every possible aspect of this business to graduate students
of film, business, and law, and the number one lesson was to distinguish
a data dump from a well-told story. How many times had I pounded into
them all the things that stories are not? Stories are not lists, decks,
PowerPoints, flip charts, lectures, pleas, instructions, regulations,
manifestos, calculations, lesson plans, threats, statistics, evidence,
orders, or raw facts. While virtually every form of human communication
can contain stories, most conversations and speeches are not, in and of
What's the essential difference? Non-stories may provide information,
but stories have a unique power to move people's hearts, minds, feet,
and wallets in the story teller's intended direction. Come to think of
it, if it hadn't been for the story I told to move my listeners in
Dayton, I wouldn't even have had all those metrics to prove Mandalay's
process to Goodman!
Initially, Dayton had seemed as much of a long shot as Vegas had seemed
a sure bet. Ohio's media had suggested that the rundown city center was
an irredeemable blight on the landscape and not worth a dime of
investment. Few of Dayton's officials thought suburban fans would
venture downtown after dark, and the urban dwellers supposedly couldn't
afford the luxury of a ball game. Besides, the press insinuated, those
two cultures would never mix. But we shaped the perfect story to turn
those attitudes around.
We told them the core tale of Field of Dreams, in which Kevin Costner's
character, Ray Kinsella, was perceived as out of his mind for building a
ballpark in the middle of a cornfield. Instantly, I had their attention.
Then I ignited their imagination by portraying our new stadium as the
catalyst for a rebirth of the city's center. "If we build it," I told
them, "they will come."
Our story had even the naysayers believing that our stadium really might
bring commerce back into the downtown area. Together we really could
create the kind of wholesome family entertainment experience that was
Mandalay's specialty. And if we succeeded, this would give the city a
unique new story and brand.
We told the same story--that we were building a real-life Field of
Dreams--to persuade Magic Johnson and Archie Griffin to invest in the
project. Then we kept telling the story together until Dayton's civic
leaders sponsored a municipal bond just like the one I'd needed in
It would have taken a totally different story, of course, to drive home
our Vegas proposition to Oscar Goodman. Although I failed to realize it
at the time, Vegas was beginning to shift its brand from a
family-friendly city, for which family-friendly baseball was a perfect
fit, to "what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas." So even if I'd realized
my story could be a game-changer, I'd have had to tell Goodman a tale
that delivered the majors with an R rating! Sadly, I never told him any
story, let alone the right one! Of all people, I should have known
better, and yet I still defaulted to the standard operating procedure of
American business, relying solely on talking points and financial
models. The numbers were so good, how could Mayor Goodman fail to be
He didn't fail. I did--several times over. I failed to grasp my
audience's interests. I failed to listen to my audience. And I failed to
tell him a story. How could I have been so clueless?
I wondered . . . Could the reason be that I'd aimed for Goodman's head
and wallet instead of his heart? In the movie business this would be
strategic suicide. Miss the audience's heart as a filmmaker, and the
only wallet that gets hit will be your own. That's because the heart is
always the first target in story telling. But my Vegas strikeout
suggested that this rule went beyond show business. What if reaching the
audience's heart was critical to winning in every business?
COULD TELLING TO WIN BE YOUR GAME-CHANGER?
In my life I've experienced tremendous success across diverse ventures
and industries, but I've also had a boatload of professional tip-overs,
economic mishaps, managerial disasters, and creative flops. I've backed
products that left my bank account empty and my garage full of unsold
inventory. I've started music companies that were off-tune and bought
the Las Vegas Thunder, a pro hockey team that then went on to a
five-year profit-losing streak with an audience that didn't give a puck.
My movies weren't all boffo, either. Folks tried to walk out on The
Bonfire of the Vanities even when it was shown on planes, and I
certainly had my ups and downs at Sony. These losses were financially
and emotionally painful--and often highly public. And my many successes
only made the failures that much more confounding. For years I wondered,
was I ruled by dumb luck? Or was there a game-changer that would enlarge
my target, sharpen my trajectory, accelerate my momentum, and shorten
the distance to my goal? Wouldn't it be terrific if this game-changer
also increased the joy of the enterprise? If somebody invented a
technology that accomplished all this, they'd make a fortune!
After my loss in Vegas, it occurred to me that everybody in business
shares one universal problem: To succeed, you have to persuade others to
support your vision, dream, or cause. Whether you want to motivate your
executives, organize your shareholders, shape your media, engage your
customers, win over investors, or land a job, you have to deliver a
clarion call that will get your listeners' attention, emotionalize your
goal as theirs, and move them to act in your favor. You have to reach
their hearts as well as their minds--and this is just what story telling
What if purposeful story telling was the game-changer I'd been looking
for all along?
I'd taught for more than thirty years that stories teach, model, unite,
and motivate by transporting audiences emotionally. Many of my films,
including Rain Man¸ Gorillas in the Mist, and Midnight Express,
delivered purposeful calls to action that went far beyond entertainment.
Because audience members were emotionally moved by each film's central
message, they passed that message on to others by telling and retelling
the story of their own experience of the film. And that word of mouth
moved millions more as the story traveled orally around the globe. Each
of these retellings extended the reach and impact of the original story,
but each new teller also turned that story into something new and
different by adding his or her own emotion to it--proof that you don't
have to be a professional to tell a moving story. Anyone can do it, and
everyone does do it!
I got more and more excited as I began to see telling to win as the
secret sauce for success. You don't need a special degree to tell the
story of your company, brand, or offering and make it a powerful call to
action. You don't need money or privilege. This really is a vital skill
that's freely available to anyone! Moreover, telling stories is a source
of joy as well as success. It's like a guilty pleasure that's also
lucrative. What could be better?
But if this was so, how could I possibly have failed to see the
strategic importance of telling to win before in my career? Or had I?
Was it possible I'd benefited from this art without even realizing it?
Suddenly I felt as if lightning had struck.
IT WAS THE EARLY 1990s. I'd been named CEO of Sony's then-recent
acquisition, Columbia Pictures Entertainment. This multibillion-dollar
global media conglomerate was a later incarnation of Columbia Pictures,
where I'd served as studio chief twenty years earlier, so at first this
new job felt like a homecoming. But it wasn't long before I realized the
company had lost its center.
For years before Sony came along, Columbia had been in the
going-out-of-business business, with all divisions greased and oiled for
sale to the highest bidder. Although the biggest revenue generator in
the film industry at the time was video, Columbia and TriStar's video
distribution had been sold to RCA, which was then acquired by General
Electric before my arrival. The loss of that asset was a drag on company
morale and productivity. And there was no unified direction or vision
connecting the various surviving divisions. The assets of Sony's
acquisition included two film studios (TriStar and Columbia Pictures),
global television operations, and the Loews theater circuit. Its
executives were spread among rental facilities from coast to coast, with
the studio's production and management teams occupying the once-great
but now dilapidated MGM lot. The lion on the sign at an adjacent
building MGM still owned seemed to be pondering our future.
Excerpted from "Tell to Win: Connect, Persuade, and Triumph with the Hidden Power of Story" by Peter Guber. Copyright © 0 by Peter Guber. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.