Storytelling Your Way to Success

In his new book Tell to Win, legendary Hollywood producer and entrepreneur Peter Guber shares the secret to success: Great storytelling. And here’s the good news–we all have it in us.

Peter Guber

If I had to appropriate a trending hashtag for the remarkably colorful career of Peter Guber, I would pick #winning. He has run a record label and a movie studio. He gave the world Kiss and Rain Man. Recently, Guber produced The Kids Are All Right, which received four Academy Award nominations. He also owns a casino and a professional basketball team (Golden State Warriors) under the aegis of his company Mandalay Entertainment.


In Guber’s new book, Tell to Win, he uses the power of his own story as well as those of his astonishing roster of friends and colleagues (President Bill Clinton, Arianna Huffington, Muhammad Yunus, and reality-TV producer Mark Burnett) to identify and bring to life a set of ideas that he says can improve anyone’s storytelling abilities and help them get what they want out of life. “Your own story is a great way to connect with the audience,” he told me when we chatted recently, and he’s right. Here’s an edited excerpt of our conversation about the ideas in Tell to Win.

FC: What’s the story behind you writing this book?

Peter Guber: I’ve been teaching for four decades at UCLA, in the graduate school for theater, film, and television–and more recently in the MBA program. After listening to the business students, there was a feeling that being able to craft your story into an emotional narrative was the “soft stuff” that didn’t count for very much and didn’t need to be coached. As I thought about the successes and failures in my life, I realized that the secret sauce to success is the ability to take facts, bullet points, and data and orchestrate them into an emotional offering so that your audience metabolizes them and then the information becomes resonant, memorable, and actionable.

Stories are a misunderstood, misused, and underutilized asset, and if I could shine a light on them and identify a process, it would be a tremendous benefit. I spent all these years doing stories and now the story is the story. Stories aren’t the icing on the cake; they are the cake!

You’ve been on both sides of the table–pitching ideas and being the person who can green-light a project based on how well it’s presented to you. Why didn’t you connect with this idea earlier?

These things are so inherent in us, you can take it for granted and believe that you either have the storytelling gene or you don’t. My epiphany was to recognize that this ability to tell stories is there in all of us. It’s hardwired.


But how do you coach, mentor, and support folks in utilizing this asset in the highest and best way? How do we use this as a tool? We need some navigational stakes. For example, you must recognize that the narrative has to be interesting to the audience and not just interesting to you. And the way to help do that is to be interested into your audience rather than just be interesting.

Tell to Win

I’ve seen so many people who think they’re natural-born storytellers lose a room when making a pitch. How do you reach people who think they are good at this?

If you accept that these are tools that work, what do you need to do to play the game better? What elements do you have? If you’re going into a room with someone, how do you make your intention clear? If it’s not clear, your audience isn’t going to know what you’re talking about because they need to know why you’re talking about what you’re talking about. What’s your call to action?

You have to be authentic right from the start of your story. People get that. Language is a more recent technology. Your body language, your eyes, your energy will come through to your audience before you even start speaking.

The portal into people’s heart is being interested in them. And when you emotionalize your story, they’re going to stay engaged and pay it forward, virally marketing the words and ideas you’re putting out there. An open heart is the greatest palette to deliver a story that ever existed. These are not fundamentally earth-shocking elements–and there aren’t 50 different ones, just five or six–and any one can be a game changer. The problem is most people don’t know what they want to do when they walk in the room.

You say that the best way to use the tools in Tell to Win is to be in the same room with someone, breathing the same air. But so much of our storytelling now comes through digital tools–email, Facebook, Twitter, video conferencing. Are these technologies a hindrance to the ideas in the book?


No, I think any new technology that helps connect and create social cohesion is great. But at the end of the day, you and I are analog creatures. We have to take oohs and aahs and convert them to 0s and 1s and then convert them back to oohs and aahs. Narratives that work in social networks are the exchange of stories that are told well. They get paid forward and go viral. And if you only have 140 characters, you have to be elegant in creating that emotion. And when emotion is bonded with information, it becomes more resonant and memorable. That’s the way our brains work.

Read an excerpt from Tell to Win