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Every Winner Tells a Story

A master in the art of telling — and selling — stories explains how they can function as management tools

Tell to Win, by Peter Guber

Peter Guber — studio head, NBA team co-owner, film producer and professor — starts his new collection of business advice, Tell to Win, by casually remarking, "Let me give away the ending of this book …" The feint makes you feel you've just been outmaneuvered in a pitch meeting where the author intends to sell you, the reader, his vision.

Guber's stock in trade is, after all, stories, and Tell to Win aims to instruct us in the power and efficacy of a simple, well-structured narrative (the book is subtitled Connect, Persuade, and Triumph With the Hidden Power of Story). As a film producer, Guber's greatest asset is his network of relationships with the great and the good, the wealthy and the powerful. So the second element you encounter in Guber's book is a five-page list of the people whose stories he will feature. Deployed by any other author, the list might strike us as name-dropping; in Guber's experienced hands, it comes off as shoptalk.

The list ranges from the mayor of Las Vegas to Fidel Castro, from magician David Copperfield to the 14th Dalai Lama, from Muhammad Ali to Bill Clinton. In a gentle and beautifully crafted parody of Guber's style, even George Clooney coughs up a cover blurb: "This book … gives you the two keys to success — first, everything starts with a good story, and second, don't drop names (actually Frank Sinatra told me that)."

If Guber has the self-deprecating wit to include that gentle barb, he also has the credentials to back up his basic notion: that stories have almost mystical powers to persuade people and to propagate themselves; that successful stories are both purposeful and authentic; and that only a convincing hero can incite the listener to action. Yet we all carry our own personal chronicles of fear or defeat, Guber cautions, and these negative backstories can undermine even the best tales we manage to tell.

As Guber himself might comment at this point: "We've heard about the importance of stories. Now how about citing a few good stories from the book?"

One winning example involves Norma Kamali.

Guber recalls learning in 2008 that the famous fashion designer would be creating a clothing line for a well-known deep-discount chain, with many items in the line selling for $20 or less. How could Kamali persuade the store's suppliers — the people who would physically assemble these clothes — to devote the loving care essential to turn out quality togs? Kamali remembered working with public school students whose mothers were so ashamed of their own clothing that they skipped parent-teacher conferences. Kamali's line for the discount chain would be the hero of this story, giving poor women a sense of confidence, a gleaming shield of affordable fashion. And that would make heroes of the suppliers as well.

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