The art of the tell, Part 3

This is the third in a series of lessons from Peter Gruber, a producer and executive producer of movies such as Rain Man, Batman, The Color Purple, Midnight Express, Gorillas in the Mist: The Story of Dian Fossey, The Witches of Eastwick, Missing and Flashdance, which have earned over three billion dollars worldwide and more than 50 Academy Award nominations. Clearly, Gruber knows about how to tell a story!

Last time, we highlighted the importance of Gruber’s focus on the MAGIC of telling purposeful stories. He explained his failures and successes into a set of techniques, beginning with how to motivate your audience to a goal…

More on the Goal:

You cannot hide your goal. It cannot be the rabbit that you pull out of the hat at the end of the story. Gruber said, “You can’t hide it, you have to pride it.” Trust is the basis of which relationships are built on. Hiding the goal is not trustworthy.

He learned this from the former South African president Nelson Mandela. When Mandela was released from prison, he phoned Gruber. After a few attempts after Gruber and his assistant were convinced it was a prank call, he got through. Mandela explained that he needed Peter’s help. He wanted to tell his story. He stated his goal was raise awareness of his country’s plight and he had enlisted a U.S. east coast business person and he wanted Peter to serve as the west coast champion.

With that introduction he then went on to say to Peter, “Let me tell you a story. I may have spent 27 years in prison but my captors did not understand one thing. They could not imprison my ambition and ambition for my people.”

Peter organized west coast gatherings for Mandela to tell his stories and business people opened their wallets to support the goal. Mandela was authentic, generous with his stories, he had skin in the game, his intentions were clear and the goal was worthy. He did not hide it. He did pride it!


No one wants to be a passenger just sitting there. People want to be active and engaged. Peter reinforced this concept by asking “Why do you think video games are so damn popular? People want to interact, the challenge for the story teller, is to bake the will to action inside the activity. This has to be a dialog, it cannot be a monolog. When you connect with your audience, you get a place for your data, facts, and information to land.”

He asked the audience how many had stayed in a hotel room in the past six months. Most raised their hands. He then asked how many could remember the room number. All hands came down. But then he suggested what if you had closed a big business deal in that room, proposed to your spouse, or had sex with a stranger. No that’s an interactive story and you would likely remember every fact and detail including the room number.

This reminded him of Mohamed Ali. In the early stages of developing a movie about Ali, the fighter requested that they gather everyone that was going to be involved in marketing the film for a meeting. This was unusual, the script had not even been written, they had not even chosen a writer, but Ali insisted.

Everyone came in, photographers, art directors, copy editors and Ali began to tell the story of his greatest fight. He detailed round one, then round two, he captured his audience and he danced around the room illustrating the fight. By round six everyone was engaged. Notes were being taken, everyone was preparing, he even posed and had the photographer take a picture. The marketers were hanging around the office after Ali left telling the story of the day to others. They interacted, became involved and began preparation much earlier than usual which is what Ali wanted to happen.


Peter was quick to reinforce, “Your own stories are an emotional palette for you to paint from. We all find stories around us. The narrative is lurking everywhere in your life. If you don’t think you have a drama, go home and just look around. You will see a great movie unfolding around you.”

Drama is seducing, as Peter learned when in 1991 Michael Jackson was a financing machine for the studio. He was a writer, developer and performer with countless successes. He then called Peter and said he wanted to make a movie. Peter reminded him that making a film is different than producing music and Jackson invited him over to his house in Encino to discuss.

When Peter arrived at the house, Jackson invited him to the bedroom and told him he want to introduce him to Muscles. Peter soon learned that Muscles was a pet boa constrictor. The large heavy bodied species of snake was curled in the corner. In the other corner was a little white mouse. Jackson explained This was drama. Not that the mouse would be eaten, but how and when would it be eaten.

He challenged everyone in the audience to be a story advocate. We have stories all around us. Simply tell a story, drop in your intention and you got it. And the audience all laughed when he commented that when the story is on point, even better. It was clear Peter’s advice was to always be collecting content for stories.


“If you think you are in the information business, you will fail,” was Peter’s wrap-up theme. He told the story of a sheep herder who was approached by a man with a proposition. The man said “if I can tell you the exact count of sheep you have in your flock spread across all these hills, would you give me one of your sheep?” The herder liked the challenge and accepted. The man got out his flip camera and filmed the area, uploaded to his Sony laptop, and using a AT&T wifi sent the files to a super computer in Hamburg for calculations. The answer came back. It was 1536, the herder congratulated him and helped him load the sheep in the car.

Then the herder had a challenge. He suggested he could guess the man’s profession and if correct the man would give him back his sheep. The man agreed and the header said, “You are a consultant!” The man asked how he knew. The herder said, “You showed up here when you were not called, answered a question I did not ask, and charged me for it so now I must ask that you give me back my sheep.”

Peter told everyone, “You don’t have to be great storytellers, you just have to breathe. We are designed this way. It’s in our DNA. We make big decisions when face-to-face telling and listening to stories. You cannot take away the facts and figures but you need the emotional connection. You have to be a difference maker, not a sane maker. This is not about being an actor, it about being!”

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picture by Katrina Snaps

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