The power of storytelling

PETER Guber, Mandalay Entertainment Group chairman and CEO, engaged his audience as he shared his leadership story and the importance of storytelling in business in a recent “ANC Leadership Series: Telling Stories, Winning Games” forum held by ANC, the ABS-CBN News Channel, at the Sofitel Philippine Plaza Manila.

The ANC Leadership Series is part of the country’s premier all-English cable news channel’s efforts to raise the level of discourse on global affairs and business issues in the country by bringing renowned international speakers for a one-day speaking engagement. Previous speakers included Richard Branson of the Virgin brand empire, and former US Secretary of State Madeline Albright.

Guber, whose executive and entrepreneurial accomplishments—which include chairman and CEO of Sony Pictures Entertainment, chairman and CEO of Polygram Entertainment, cofounder of Casablanca Record & Filmworks and president of Columbia Pictures—have made him a success in multiple industries, has long relied on purposeful storytelling to motivate, win over, engage and sell.

A practitioner of storytelling in business, Guber wrote Tell to Win: Connect, Persuade and Triumph with the Hidden Power of Story, which shines a light on this powerful business tool. The business book became an instant number one on the New York Times Bestseller. The tome deals with the importance of storytelling in the author’s life, who has an amazing set of stories to tell: How he grew up in New York; why he went to Hollywood; how he became a big-time influential film producer whose works included Batman, Rain Man and Gorillas in the Mist; and how he turned out to be the co-owner of the Golden State Warriors, an NBA team based in San Francisco.

Many of the stories he told in the forum and wrote in the book are less about his marvelous achievements, of which there are many, and more about the enlightening missteps that unavoidably happened as he made his life tracks. His takes on storytelling and its importance are applicable in the practice of Public Relations (PR). Storytelling in PR allows companies to better connect with their audience and ultimately, stimulate the audience’s feelings, ideas, and attitudes to align with their communication and marketing goals.

  • Storytelling is crucial for business. When you emotionalize your message, you give meaning that people can hold on to. Forget soulless power points and facts and figures. You’re not moved by ones and zeros; you’re moved by oohs and aahs.
  • The ability to tell a purposeful story will be your secret sauce. And this sauce will make you more persuasive, convincing and a better manager. Telling to win through purposeful stories is situation, industry, gender, demographic and psychographic-agnostic. It’s an all-purpose, everyone-wins tool. If you can’t tell it, you can’t sell it.
  • Failure is an inevitable partner on the road to success. If you’re not willing to confront failure, you can never find out how good you are. In every failure, there are the opportunity seeds of great success. They’re not miles apart. If you don’t have those failures, then you are not really trying enough, risking enough to be successful. You can’t be risk-averse in the climate you live in today.
  • You’re never ready to tell a story until you know your audience better than it knows itself. Engage them, get them to own the proposition,not just hear the proposition. You must move your audience to the action you want them to take. You cannot move them with information and facts they will not be able to remember. People are not moved by features, but by the benefits they can get. Discover what the audience fears, what they long for, dream about, and loathe. You’ve got to do the research. You’re simply not ready for prime time otherwise.
  • Your audience does not remember movies; your audience remembers scenes from the movies. It can be a joke from the movie, a viral tune or a memorable dialogue. The whole element of it is that three or four scenes make the movie. And to have an emotionally connecting narrative, pick a story that will work years from now. Ask yourself if your narrative is undoubtedly compelling.
  • Purposeful storytelling must motivate, win over, engage and sell. Focus must always be on building a good story, engaging different audiences to believe and champion the story, and then rendering to those audiences meaningful and memorable experiences. The story must have “Magic,” which means Motivating your Audience to your Goal, through Interactivity and great Content.
  • Your purposeful story must have a goal and a call to action. But before that, you as a storyteller must be motivated. This means you must be authentic and congruent, and that you are interested in what is interesting to your audience. That way, you can capture and retain their attention.
  • Telling purposeful stories is interactive. It’s not a monologue. Ultimately, you are a purposeful teller if you surrender control of your stories, create a gap for the listeners to willingly cross to take ownership. Only when the listeners own the teller’s story and make it theirs, will they market virally.
  • Struggle and resolution are seminal elements of what makes a story great. The fundamentals are the same whether you’re talking about story content for a movie such as Oscar best picture winner Rain Man or telling a purposeful story to forge new business relationships, or conclude a fruitful transaction, such as acquiring an NBA franchise.
  • Culture is the best business plan for any company. Building a winning culture in your organization is a necessity. Every member—from players to coaches to employees, and even fans—must embrace the goal and know their role in achieving it. When a culture is created, people bring in things. Everybody in the organization feels their participation. Everybody must meld together and make them recognize the anthem of your team and your call to action. It is their team and you’re the steward.
  • A sense of aliveness comes from connection and shared experience. You see it in every place. You see it when ball players jump up and down, gather at home plate, hugging, or body slamming. It’s not just because you’re winning; it’s that shared moment, that feeling of—you enter the world alone, you leave alone.
  • A great leader is a great storyteller. Think about Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, Nelson Mandela, the Dalai Lama and Pope Francis. Think about all the people you know who are very successful in business, politics and religion. What is their commonality? They tell purposeful stories. They move people to action by aiming at the heart.
  • Paying attention to the client’s or customer’s backstory can win the deal. And ignoring it can be detrimental. Guber himself tried and failed to steal Larry King away from CNN years ago. Ted Turner kept Larry at CNN with five words, “Just tell me, ‘Good bye.’” That worked because of Larry’s issues about loyalty over his struggles with his father. Turner knew what button to push— the power of the backstory.
  • Truth is a point of view, but authenticity can’t be faked. 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 storytelling. Remember: The portal into people’s hearts is being interested in them.
  • As a good storyteller, you have several options in determining the hero of your narrative. You can put yourself as the hero, and rely on the empathy of the audience to make the transference. Or you can cast a figure from history or a fictional character. But a most powerful device is to put the audience in the role. Doing this, you make it convenient for your listeners to take over the story and make it their own.
  • Mine everywhere for sources of your story. Stories come from just about everywhere—personal experience, history, myth, the classics, the news—wherever human intent and effort are involved. Don’t limit yourself. Be prepared to find stories everywhere.
  • When you’re telling the story, get into the right frame of mind. You must be fully present, feeling the emotions of your story, so that the delightful conveyance of emotion to the audience will happen when it’s supposed to. Your aim is to make the audience respond on cue. You can earn it by being completely in the moment with the story.

The transformation going on in management around the world is indeed changing from conventional to revolutionary. It is becoming increasingly more evident that one of the crucial ingredients in the continuing transformation is the ability to communicate authentically with your external and internal audiences.

Storytelling is a wonderful supplementary capability to have. It has become one of the basic talents you can’t do without to manage your professional and personal engagements.

 PR Matters is a roundtable column by members of the local chapter of the UK-based International Public Relations Association (Ipra), the world’s premier organization for PR professionals around the world. Bong R. Osorio is a communications consultant of ABS-CBN Corp., SkyCable, Dentsu-Aegis Network and government projects, among others, after retiring as vice president and head of the Corporate Communications Division of ABS-CBN.

We are devoting a special column each month to answer our readers’ questions about public relations.  Please send your questions or comments to [email protected]

Bong R. Osorio

Bong R. Osorio is the communications consultant and spokesman of ABS-CBN Corp.