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in Leaders & Managers,Workplace Communication

Peter Guber had a problem. He wanted to film divers exploring Cuban waters for galleons and pirate ships loaded with treasure, but neither the U.S. government nor Fidel Castro liked the idea of him poking around in Havana harbor.

Adding to his problem, Guber made a mistake. Seeking permission to film, he had supplied a bunch of dry information about the project to Cuban officials. “It was soulless data with no emotion, life or drama,” he recalls. Of course they said no.

Now a film executive, Guber argues that a true story told with verve can turn a desperate situation into a triumph. As an example, he offers the Havana story.

Refusing to take no for an answer, Guber sailed to Cuba, parked in a marina and waited for a different answer while racking up millions in sunk costs.

Finally, a lucky break. Castro had taken an interest in the project and would drop by for 10 minutes. The filmmaker put his crew’s most elaborate gear on display and Castro loved the welcome from swimsuit-clad Shawn Weatherly, aka Miss Universe.

Then Guber told the story of Havana harbor over centuries of global trade, diplomacy, intrigue and war. He explained how Cuba’s history would come to life on television.

“The seas belong to all humankind,” he told Castro, “and so does its history. You are the steward of Havana’s history, and it is up to you to share it with the world.”

Castro wound up staying four hours and giving permission to film anywhere in the harbor.

Here is Guber’s take:
  1. Don’t just entertain. “You have to win over people’s hearts. The visionary business leader,” Guber says, “taps into the human yearning to be part of a worthy cause.”

  2. Identify your audience’s emotional needs. Getting facts straight is not enough. You’ve got to hit the right emotional arc. Try it out first on skeptics.

  3. Tell your story interactively, as Guber did, so that your listeners see themselves as the hero.
—Adapted from “The Four Truths of the Storyteller,” Peter Guber, Harvard Business Review.

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