Read an Excerpt
It's the Story, Stupid
The boom in Vegas was our golden ticket. This thought propelled me up the Strip to meet with the city's political gatekeeper, Mayor Oscar Goodman. As chairman of Mandalay Entertainment Group, I was determined to ride the momentum that had turned Sin City family-friendly. So many new residents had been drawn to Las Vegas in the early 2000s that the construction crane was laughingly referred to as the city's official bird, and all this wholesome expansion virtually guaranteed the business home run that I was about to deliver for my company's professional baseball division.
Our proposition: to build the ultimate state-of-the-art ballpark in the entertainment capital of the world. Our agenda: to elevate our sports entertainment business onto the national stage. Our success hinged on my ability to persuade Las Vegas's chief politician to lead the campaign for a municipal bond to fund this multimillion-dollar civic project. But since this huge, iconic city currently had no quality professional stadium, let alone the kind of cutting-edge venue that was Mandalay's specialty, my proposal had to be a no-brainer for the mayor. Or so I thought.
Mandalay Baseball at the time owned five professional minor-league franchises across the country, including Single-A, Double-A, and Triple-A teams, and our partners included basketball superstar Magic Johnson; Heisman Trophy-winner Archie Griffin; and Tom Hicks, owner of the Texas Rangers. There's nothing minor about the business of the minor leagues, which attract more than 40 million fans each year, and our profits validated that. We had an established track record of attracting public money, winning local support, and building top-of-the-line stadiums. Recently we'd acquired the Las Vegas Triple-A franchise of the legendary LA Dodgers. Now we wanted to elevate this franchise by moving its location from Cashman Field, the outdated university ballpark where it currently played, and building the twenty-first-century world-class stadium that Las Vegas's home team so richly deserved. As I arrived at the mayor's headquarters, I thought, OK, let's play ball!
Even though I was late, the mayor made me wait. Goodman was a shrewd wielder of power. The decor of his anteroom let you know you were dealing with somebody in show businesshe showed you his business wherever you looked, from the replica of the iconic Las Vegas sign that read, WELCOME TO FABULOUS MAYOR GOODMAN'S OFFICE, to the glass display cases crammed with more awards and tchotchkes than I could count. There were photos of Goodman with everyone from President Bill Clinton to Michael Jackson and actors Tony Curtis and Steven Seagal. I even noticed a pair of Muhammad Ali's boxing gloves.
Every detail of that office screamed, Major League! If only I'd paid attention.
Finally the mayor was ready for me. But before I could get a word out, he peppered me with talk about the movies I'd produced, executive produced, or supervised, especially the twoRain Man and Bugsythat were made in Vegas. He asked if I had any plans to make another film in his fair city. Then he quoted the box office numbers that had lifted Batman into the stratosphere. I took all this foreplay as proof that Goodman was the perfect audience for my perfect pitch.
I told him I'd come to deliver box office success for Vegasthis time not through movies but through baseball. As proof, I reeled off the data that I was sure would mesmerize him: figures proving Mandalay kept design and construction costs down, quality up, and completion on schedule. Our most recent stadium, built for our Single-A Cincinnati Reds team in Dayton, Ohio, featured amenities such as upper-deck seating and luxury suites, making it unique among minor-league ballparks at the time.
I gestured toward the window view of cranes marching across the desert. "All those new hometown fans in Las Vegas deserve a legacy team and ballpark of their own."
The mayor considered this statement. Then he asked, "Can you deliver a major-league team here?"
Had someone dubbed the word "major" into his mouth? He'd stopped listening the instant I said "minor-league," but I was so caught up in my facts and figures that I thought he was just confused. "This is professional baseball, all major-league affiliates," I assured him. "You'll be able to ride on the back of the most storied team in pro historythe Los Angeles Dodgers."
He shook his head. "We're overdue for something really, really big."
"What I'm proposing is huge," I insisted. "In the years since our stadium opened in Dayton, we've sold out every single game. That's an unprecedented phenomenon. And we intend to surpass it here."
Goodman shot me a cold squint. "This ain't Dayton, kiddo."
Even though I met with the mayor several more times, bringing him to my home in Los Angeles and presenting him with several more decks of killer data, my efforts only proved that you never get a second chance to make a first impression. And I never even made it to first base with my "guaranteed" home run.
This failure haunted me. How had I managed so decisively to turn our winning odds to a loss in Vegas? The metrics certainly weren't to blame. Not long after striking out with Goodman, a car dealer out of Detroit named Derek Stevens attended a game at Cashman Field and was excited by exactly the same vision we'd had, that of building Las Vegas a professional ballpark. Good luck! We sold him our Las Vegas Triple-A franchise for a then record price, making a handsome profit for Mandalay. But my business goal had been to turn Vegas into the engine that would lift our company to the next level. The economic windfall was little consolation. I'd lost the game I came to play.
Failure, however, is an inevitable cul de sac on the road to success. As we began crafting a new strategy, one of my Mandalay colleagues remarked, "We'll have to change our story."
And that's when the lightbulb turned on: Ahha! You forgot to tell a story, stupid!
I'd thrown a powerful barrage of raw facts at Goodmandata, statistics, records, forecastsbut I didn't organize them in any way to engage his emotions. No wonder he hadn't swung at my offering!
"Stupid" was right. I'm in the entertainment business! If anybody should know the strategic difference between a data dump and a winning story, I should. I'd produced dozens of films and television programs. Before starting Mandalay, I'd been studio chief at Columbia Pictures, co-chairman of Casablanca Record and Filmworks, CEO of Polygram Pictures, and chairman and CEO of Sony Pictures Entertainment. My core business was telling stories to move people! Furthermore, as a full professor in the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television, I'd taught just about every possible aspect of this business to graduate students of film, business, and law, and the number one lesson was to distinguish a data dump from a well-told story. How many times had I pounded into them all the things that stories are not? Stories are not lists, decks, PowerPoints, flip charts, lectures, pleas, instructions, regulations, manifestos, calculations, lesson plans, threats, statistics, evidence, orders, or raw facts. While virtually every form of human communication can contain stories, most conversations and speeches are not, in and of themselves, stories.
What's the essential difference? Non-stories may provide information, but stories have a unique power to move people's hearts, minds, feet, and wallets in the story teller's intended direction. Come to think of it, if it hadn't been for the story I told to move my listeners in Dayton, I wouldn't even have had all those metrics to prove Mandalay's process to Goodman!
Initially, Dayton had seemed as much of a long shot as Vegas had seemed a sure bet. Ohio's media had suggested that the rundown city center was an irredeemable blight on the landscape and not worth a dime of investment. Few of Dayton's officials thought suburban fans would venture downtown after dark, and the urban dwellers supposedly couldn't afford the luxury of a ball game. Besides, the press insinuated, those two cultures would never mix. But we shaped the perfect story to turn those attitudes around.
We told them the core tale of Field of Dreams, in which Kevin Costner's character, Ray Kinsella, was perceived as out of his mind for building a ballpark in the middle of a cornfield. Instantly, I had their attention. Then I ignited their imagination by portraying our new stadium as the catalyst for a rebirth of the city's center. "If we build it," I told them, "they will come."
Our story had even the naysayers believing that our stadium really might bring commerce back into the downtown area. Together we really could create the kind of wholesome family entertainment experience that was Mandalay's specialty. And if we succeeded, this would give the city a unique new story and brand.
We told the same storythat we were building a real-life Field of Dreamsto persuade Magic Johnson and Archie Griffin to invest in the project. Then we kept telling the story together until Dayton's civic leaders sponsored a municipal bond just like the one I'd needed in Vegas.
It would have taken a totally different story, of course, to drive home our Vegas proposition to Oscar Goodman. Although I failed to realize it at the time, Vegas was beginning to shift its brand from a family-friendly city, for which family-friendly baseball was a perfect fit, to "what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas." So even if I'd realized my story could be a game-changer, I'd have had to tell Goodman a tale that delivered the majors with an R rating! Sadly, I never told him any story, let alone the right one! Of all people, I should have known better, and yet I still defaulted to the standard operating procedure of American business, relying solely on talking points and financial models. The numbers were so good, how could Mayor Goodman fail to be wowed?
He didn't fail. I didseveral times over. I failed to grasp my audience's interests. I failed to listen to my audience. And I failed to tell him a story. How could I have been so clueless?
I wondered . . . Could the reason be that I'd aimed for Goodman's head and wallet instead of his heart? In the movie business this would be strategic suicide. 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 story telling. But my Vegas strikeout suggested that this rule went beyond show business. What if reaching the audience's heart was critical to winning in every business?
COULD TELLING TO WIN BE YOUR GAME-CHANGER?
In my life I've experienced tremendous success across diverse ventures and industries, but I've also had a boatload of professional tip-overs, economic mishaps, managerial disasters, and creative flops. I've backed products that left my bank account empty and my garage full of unsold inventory. I've started music companies that were off-tune and bought the Las Vegas Thunder, a pro hockey team that then went on to a five-year profit-losing streak with an audience that didn't give a puck. My movies weren't all boffo, either. Folks tried to walk out on The Bonfire of the Vanities even when it was shown on planes, and I certainly had my ups and downs at Sony. These losses were financially and emotionally painfuland often highly public. And my many successes only made the failures that much more confounding. For years I wondered, was I ruled by dumb luck? Or was there a game-changer that would enlarge my target, sharpen my trajectory, accelerate my momentum, and shorten the distance to my goal? Wouldn't it be terrific if this game-changer also increased the joy of the enterprise? If somebody invented a technology that accomplished all this, they'd make a fortune!
After my loss in Vegas, it occurred to me that everybody in business shares one universal problem: To succeed, you have to persuade others to support your vision, dream, or cause. Whether you want to motivate your executives, organize your shareholders, shape your media, engage your customers, win over investors, or land a job, you have to deliver a clarion call that will get your listeners' attention, emotionalize your goal as theirs, and move them to act in your favor. You have to reach their hearts as well as their mindsand this is just what story telling does!
What if purposeful story telling was the game-changer I'd been looking for all along?
I'd taught for more than thirty years that stories teach, model, unite, and motivate by transporting audiences emotionally. Many of my films, including Rain Man¸ Gorillas in the Mist, and Midnight Express, delivered purposeful calls to action that went far beyond entertainment. Because audience members were emotionally moved by each film's central message, they passed that message on to others by telling and retelling the story of their own experience of the film. And that word of mouth moved millions more as the story traveled orally around the globe. Each of these retellings extended the reach and impact of the original story, but each new teller also turned that story into something new and different by adding his or her own emotion to itproof that you don't have to be a professional to tell a moving story. Anyone can do it, and everyone does do it!
I got more and more excited as I began to see telling to win as the secret sauce for success. You don't need a special degree to tell the story of your company, brand, or offering and make it a powerful call to action. You don't need money or privilege. This really is a vital skill that's freely available to anyone! Moreover, telling stories is a source of joy as well as success. It's like a guilty pleasure that's also lucrative. What could be better?
But if this was so, how could I possibly have failed to see the strategic importance of telling to win before in my career? Or had I? Was it possible I'd benefited from this art without even realizing it? Suddenly I felt as if lightning had struck.
IT WAS THE EARLY 1990s. I'd been named CEO of Sony's then-recent acquisition, Columbia Pictures Entertainment. This multibillion-dollar global media conglomerate was a later incarnation of Columbia Pictures, where I'd served as studio chief twenty years earlier, so at first this new job felt like a homecoming. But it wasn't long before I realized the company had lost its center.
For years before Sony came along, Columbia had been in the going-out-of-business business, with all divisions greased and oiled for sale to the highest bidder. Although the biggest revenue generator in the film industry at the time was video, Columbia and TriStar's video distribution had been sold to RCA, which was then acquired by General Electric before my arrival. The loss of that asset was a drag on company morale and productivity. And there was no unified direction or vision connecting the various surviving divisions. The assets of Sony's acquisition included two film studios (TriStar and Columbia Pictures), global television operations, and the Loews theater circuit. Its executives were spread among rental facilities from coast to coast, with the studio's production and management teams occupying the once-great but now dilapidated MGM lot. The lion on the sign at an adjacent building MGM still owned seemed to be pondering our future.