Holt Lecture

Peter Guber Leads the Way as Storyteller

By Julie Riggott

Peter Guber

“Leaders are great storytellers,” said entertainment industry stalwart Peter Guber during a recent lecture hosted by the USC School of Policy, Planning, and Development at the Davidson Continuing Education Center.

Guber, the founder and CEO of Mandalay Entertainment, was the guest lecturer as part of the Dennis and Brooks Holt Visiting Professorship in Communication and Public Policy.

His speech on “Enhancing Leadership Through the Power of Oral Storytelling” drew students and faculty from the School of Cinematic Arts, the USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism and the USC Marshall School of Business in addition to SPPD.

Jack Knott, the C. Erwin and Ione L. Piper Dean and Professor at SPPD, explained that the Holt Professorship “focuses on the incredibly important role of communication in a democratic society and market-based economy.” It was established by a gift from Holt and his wife Brooks.

Holt, a longtime member of the SPPD Board of Councilors and founding chairman and CEO of U.S. International Media, attended USC on a baseball scholarship and called it an honor to be able to give back.

“Whatever successes I’ve had in my life, I credit USC,” he said after attending Guber’s lecture, about which he added: “To sit in the presence of an industry icon and be informed and entertained at the same time is a rare event.”

Guber’s entertainment career started in 1968 at Columbia Pictures, where he quickly rose to studio chief. He went on to become chairman and CEO of Sony Pictures and in 1995 founded Mandalay Entertainment, which comprises movies, TV, professional sports and new media. Guber is also a professor of theatre, film and television at UCLA and hosts the AMC series Shootout.

Films for which Guber was producer or executive producer — including Rain Man, Batman, The Color Purple, Midnight Express and Flashdance — have earned more than $3 billion worldwide and garnered more than 50 Academy Award nominations. Despite these accomplishments, the media mogul chose to begin his lecture with examples of “cataclysmic and highly public” failures: the unpopular Bonfire of the Vanities movie and a losing hockey team under the Mandalay banner.

“Success and failure are millimeters apart,” Guber said. When recently looking back on his 40-year career, Guber discovered the “game changer” is the “ability to tell oral stories to influence, empower and impassion others to believe and act with you.”

Whether you want to motivate someone to act with you, buy your brand or invest in your company, you have to “orally narrate your offering … to make it memorable, resonant and actionable,” Guber said. More importantly, he added, your story has to aim for the heart, not the head or wallet.

He called his approach “state-of-the-heart technologies” because it involves connecting with a person emotionally through a story that moves him to take action.

Practicing what he preached, Guber engaged the crowd with pure storytelling, catchy aphorisms and generous amounts of humor. With the energy of a motivational speaker, he guided audience members through the process of tapping into their storytelling power: knowing your audience, making your goal known upfront and motivating your audience with interesting, interactive content to join your mission.

To demonstrate the importance of vulnerability in motivating your audience, Guber shared a story about trying to convince a Warner Bros. CEO to go ahead with production of Gorillas in the Mist, a film the studio considered risky and expensive and was ready to cancel after two and a half years of work.

When his plea to give the vanishing apes a voice wasn’t getting through, Guber laid on the floor in the CEO’s office as a “failed gorilla” until the answer he got was yes.

Guber illustrated the importance of finding what interests your audience with an anecdote about Fidel Castro.

In the 1980s, Guber needed the Cuban dictator’s permission to film an episode of Oceanquest, a documentary-style ocean exploration show, in Havana Harbor.

When Castro met him on a boat there with the crew and diving equipment standing by, Guber noticed his fascination with a huge tooth (which he showed the audience) from an extinct shark that was an ancestor of the great white and suggested that, like the fossil tooth, this show could be a reminder through the ages of Castro’s stewardship of Havana Harbor.

Castro gave the go-ahead.

Though he also revealed “the power of narrative” with personal tales featuring Nelson Mandela and Muhammad Ali, Guber stressed that this leadership tool is within everyone.

“It is not something for Spielberg and Lucas alone. It is not something for Grisham alone,” he said. “It’s for anybody who wants to involve other people in their mission and their goal.”

Photo by Tom Queally