Kim Wright Wiley
Is there someone you’d like to inspire? Maybe your salespeople, with their endless complaints and sluggish numbers? The client who refuses to place an order until “things get better”? Or even your teenage daughter, who’s struggling in algebra? If you want to move another person to meaningful action, you have several alternatives: You can order, beg, threaten, overwhelm with numbers, or bludgeon with facts.
Or you could tell a story.
“The human brain is hardwired to remember and respond to stories,” says Peter Guber, producer, founder, and CEO of Mandalay Entertainment and author of Tell to Win: Connect, Persuade, and Triumph with the Hidden Power of Story (Crown Business, 2011). “The written word is a relatively new invention, and the digital age has been around for only a blink, but mankind has a long history of sitting around the campfire telling stories. The oral tradition was how we stayed alive as a species. We knew we couldn’t outrun the mastodon, but we could outsmart it and then pass that information along to our families and clansmen. All major religions are based on stories. Although technology has caused us, largely, to abandon storytelling, it’s still the most effective way to activate emotion, instill information into the memories of your listeners, and motivate them to action. Facts and figures will get a speaker only so far, but when you narrate your proposition, you bring in that critical ‘X’ factor that makes people really respond.”
Stories are game changers because they engage a listener’s emotions – and emotion, not logic, causes people to act. Stories resonate within us, which is precisely why people are far more likely to remember information that was embedded within a story than information that was presented to them in facts or figures.
“Studies show that information bonded with emotion is more easily recalled,” says Guber, so people can quote lines of dialogue or remember small details from a movie they saw years earlier. If you were emotionally moved by something, it takes up a kind of permanent residence within your brain.
“The magic of story comes down to one thing,” Guber says. “We are emotional creatures. When you tell a story, you ‘emotionalize’ your message, making it easier for the readers to ingest, and from that point on the story becomes a part of them. They haven’t been given just information, they’ve been given an experience, and when they later recall that story, the emotion is also aroused again.”
Guber feels that story is especially powerful in an economy in which people are frightened and reluctant to make decisions. “Nothing can galvanize people in a world that’s glutted with state-of-the-art technology like the chance to communicate through ‘state-of-the-heart’ technology.”
Tell to Win is full of stories of Guber’s encounters with the rich and famous. In the years he spent as a Hollywood power player at Columbia Pictures, Sony Pictures, Casablanca Records, and Filmworks, Guber had plenty of opportunities to observe how successful people utilize the power of story. He describes a meeting with Michael Jackson during which the singer expressed a desire to act in a movie. While Jackson’s musical ability was beyond dispute, Guber wondered out loud if Jackson understood how drama worked in films. Rather than deluge the skeptical producer with credits from his resume, Jackson simply took Guber upstairs to the massive terrarium where his pet boa constrictor, Muscles, was napping in the corner. In the other corner was a little white mouse shivering in terror. Jackson explained that Muscles would inevitably devour the mouse but that “the drama was when and how.”
Guber saw immediately that Jackson “understood the essence of drama,” and he has never forgotten the incident. Similar stories involving personalities as diverse as Muhammed Ali, Fidel Castro, and the Dalai Lama are scattered throughout the book, and Guber also shows how a company can use the power of story to build its brand.
In 1996, Kevin Plank, then just a 23-year-old budding entrepreneur, trained his staff to tell a story that made the customer the hero. The basic product of Under Armour was a fabric designed to wick sweat away from the skin during intense athletic activity, but Plank wisely focused, not on perspiration, but on inspiration.
“He created a whole Under Armour story in which the customer was a champion who wanted to achieve certain dreams,” said Guber. “The athletic apparel was the armor that would enable customers to do this by heightening their performance and making them feel different while exercising. I have no doubt that the company’s meteoric growth is largely due to the ability to tell a story in which the customer is the star.”
When it comes to sales, Guber believes that many presenters, whether in an auditorium with a large crowd or an office with one listener, go about it all wrong. “To get what you want in today’s hypercompetitive economy, conventional wisdom says you must state your case with facts and figures – or worse, PowerPoint slides,” he says. “But the best way to reach people is to make your presentation interactive so that the listeners become participants in the story – laughing, asking questions, moving around. It’s essential to engage them, to make them part and parcel of the tale. Because you want them to own the story and, in turn, be able to tell it in their own words.”
While acknowledging that public speaking makes many people nervous, Guber says the most effective speakers “drop the props” and walk among their audience, looking people in the eye, responding to their responses, and making the presentation as relaxed and seemingly spontaneous as possible. If a lot of information must be imparted, PowerPoint can be used in the background or details can be spelled out in support documents that are handed out to the audience.
And even if you do most of your business by phone, Guber says you can still “tell to win” through active listening. “Face-to-face is obviously best,” he says, “because you’re getting so much feedback that tells you how your listeners are feeling. Technology may be efficient, but it will never reproduce all those nonverbal cues. On the phone you have to work a little harder to make sure the listener is involved. Is he or she asking questions, responding to what you say? It’s not just a matter of mowing down listeners with your story, no matter how brilliantly you tell it; you also have to make sure they’re emotionally engaged in what you’re saying.”
The bottom line? We live in what Guber describes as “a fear-based world, where it’s harder than ever to get people’s attention and move them to action. But no one in business succeeds alone. You have to get other people on board with your vision in order to sell to, manage, or lead them. Telling purposeful stories cuts through the cacophony and gets people to focus. Tell people what your purpose is at the outset. Be transparent about your mission – that this story is a call to action. Because before you can motivate them, you have to be motivated yourself. You have to feel the emotion you’re trying to create, and if you’re authentic, they’ll respond. Purposeful storytelling is the ultimate tool for closing the sale.”