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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

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.

Though most of Guber's 90-odd stories (notably those about Alice Walker, Mikhail Gorbachev, Magic Johnson and Wolfgang Puck) feature similar uplift, a few are downright chilling. In 1991, for example, when Guber headed Sony Pictures and Michael Jackson had a $65 million recording contract with Sony, Jackson was lobbying the company to let him branch out into movies. To find out what Jackson understood about the craft of telling stories  — the lifeblood of movies — Guber went to visit him at his home in Encino.

As Guber recalls the meeting, he never had to pose the question. Jackson began by acknowledging that in both film and music "you have to know where the drama is and how to present it."

Guber narrates: "He gave me a long, intense stare and abruptly stood up. 'Let me show you.' "

Jackson led the studio head upstairs to a huge glass terrarium outside the recording star's bedroom and announced: "This is Muscles."

"Inside, a massive snake was coiled around a tree branch," Guber writes. "His head was tracking something in the opposite corner of the terrarium. Michael pointed with his finger at the object of Muscles' obsession: A little white mouse was trying to hide behind a pile of wood shavings. I said hopefully, 'Are they friends?' "

Jackson answered Guber's question with another: "Do they look it?"

The pop star then explained that the snake not only preferred live mice to dead ones but enjoyed instilling fear in them. "First he uses fear to get the mouse's attention," said the Gloved One, "then he waits, building tension. Finally, when the mouse is so terrified it can't move, Muscles will close in."

"That snake had the attention of that mouse," Guber recollects, "and that mouse had the attention of that snake — and Michael Jackson had my attention. 'That's drama,' he said."

Rattled by the episode, Guber was forced to acknowledge that his bizarre host had a complete mastery of dramatic impact.

Like that anecdote, Guber's book is as entertaining as it is instructive. And though readers leave this 255-page pitch meeting suspecting that many additional skills must be required to run a film studio or a sports franchise, Tell to Win is a stirring demonstration of the crucial human art form of relating a story that lingers in the imagination.

Antony Shugaar, a freelancer writer and translator in Charlottesville, Va., is a partner in Lightbox Press.