From Autobiography to Instruction Manual: How Success Stories Have ChangedPublished: May 12, 2011 in Knowledge@Wharton
Peter Guber's Tell to Win: Connect, Persuade, and Triumph with the Hidden Power of Story and Frank Luntz's Win: The Key Principles to Take Your Business from Ordinary to Extraordinary fit squarely in the "how-to-succeed-like-I-have" genre. Both focus, from slightly different angles, on the role that effective communication plays in business success, both offer dollops of anecdote and smatterings of data and both contain some useful core content.
Guber's book essentially demonstrates the power of telling stories and the manner in which narrative undergirds most successful pitches. Overall, it reads well. One can quibble a bit about the degree to which storytelling is a learnable skill, but Guber breaks things down in useful ways to facilitate -- at least the pursuit of -- this goal.
Luntz tells a set of stories to illustrate the core characteristics of winners -- primarily in business, a few in politics and sports. He lays out what he identifies as the behaviors and practices that make these people successful. That list is arguably an easier to follow guide than the overarching story that Guber tells; it would make an excellent 15- to 20-page article.
But Luntz steps on his own message in so many different ways that it makes it difficult to take him seriously. His is a deeply flawed book, an odd hybrid in which he alternates between giving useful advice, preaching about politics and seemingly lauding his patrons and clients. It is both vexing and perplexing that such a bona fide successful communicator would fail to communicate effectively ... on the subject of communication.
We've Been Here Before
The success story is the quintessential American form. It is a genre that runs from Benjamin Franklin's Poor Richard's Almanack (1733-1747) in the 18th century, to the up-by-the-bootstraps 19th-century fiction of Horatio Alger, to the 20th-century autobiography of Andrew Carnegie and the durably successful instruction manual by the unrelated Dale Carnegie, How to Make Friends and Influence People, to the 21st-century guide to success in all things, The Secret, which was written by an Australian and Oprah-powered up the bestseller lists.
What we have seen with increasing frequency and intensity in the last decade or so is the steady morphing of the autobiographies of successful people -- chiefly in business, sports, entertainment and politics -- into instruction manuals. "My Life" has become "What I Did, How I Did It, and How You Can Do It, Too."
This territory was once more clearly the province of success gurus, whose chief claim to fame was often that they were successful in running success programs. Their venues and modes of communication evolved with technology: from correspondence courses and audio tapes, to infomercials and revival meeting style seminars, to DVDs, podcasts, and webinars. Over time, people successful in a broad range of arenas have come to see their success itself as something that can be leveraged into a second career.
Guber and Luntz's books follow in this tradition. One wonders if -- or rather hopes that -- this business trend has perhaps peaked and will begin to recede.
Both books follow a familiar and generally effective format. They create an overarching framework for their advice on how to win in business, and then they populate the frameworks with broad anecdotes and focused advice. Both are heavy on stories of successful people, mostly entrepreneurs, politicians and athletes.
Both condense and reinforce their main points. Guber uses creatively titled "aHHa!" lists at the end of each chapter. Luntz uses epigrams to start each chapter -- usually a trifecta; he also more liberally sprinkles the text with boxed lists of "Luntz Lessons" and "Luntz Language Lessons."
Luntz has an ongoing fondness for alliteration. The larger framework for his book is "The Nine P's of Winning: What It Takes to Get to the Top." The chapters are: People-Centeredness, Paradigm Breaking, Prioritization, Perfection, Partnership, Passion, Persuasion, Persistence and Principled Action.
If Luntz works on a more granular level -- what are the characteristics common to winners? -- Guber is more focused on a Big Idea: We convince people more effectively by telling a compelling story than we do by burying them in data. Luntz largely agrees with this: Emotion trumps logic.
Guber's book is broken down into two main parts: There's No Business Without Story Business -- the first third of the book or so -- in which he makes the case for the centrality of story, and The Art of the Tell -- whose three primary chapters are Ready, Set, Tell -- in which he breaks down into more digestible pieces how to go about using this technique.
You Have to Believe Me
For the most part, any reader starts out on the side of the author. We want to believe. In fact, we are often willing to suspend disbelief to give the writer the benefit of the doubt. We might think of this as "money in the credibility bank."
Generally the author starts out with a positive balance. Keep faith with us and that balance yields dividends, growing slowly but surely. Make us question your veracity and you draw down that account. Once you are in the red, however, it's unlikely that you have the seed capital to rebuild your fortune.
Ego is one of the classic stumbling blocks for authors of books in this genre: You don't have the credibility to write books like this unless you have reached a certain level of success; you do not tend to reach that level without having at bare minimum a healthy and robust ego; the people you do business with at this level tend to be large personalities as well.
And so the problem becomes one of modulation. Luntz and Guber are important and successful people. They are writing about outsized personalities like former president Bill Clinton, media mogul Rupert Murdoch, casino magnate Steve Wynn and athlete-cum-entrepreneur Magic Johnson.
Guber manages to talk about himself and others in a fairly even-keeled manner. It's hard not to experience the occasional flash of envy or irritation at the circles in which he moves -- in conversation with the Dalai Lama here, at lunch with Mikhail Gorbachev there -- but he maintains a reasonable tone. And he stays on message: He is telling you a story about the importance of story. He uses his own failures as well as his successes to drive home his points.
Luntz, by way of contrast, squanders his credibility. About 50 pages in, for example, he makes this statement: "Since 1989, I've spoken to more than a million people in focus groups, interviews, and surveys." That's an impressive number. Does he mean that, in the last 20 years or so, he has addressed that number of people? But he goes on to say, "I've probed them about every topic you can imagine. From underwear and eating habits to financial decisions and movie preferences. I've seen it all and heard it all."
A back of the envelope calculation would suggest that: a million people over 20 years means 50,000 people per year; if he worked 365 days per year, that would be about 137 people per day; if he worked an eight-hour day, that would be about 17 people per hour. That would give him about three minutes per person. All of this assumes, of course, that he has done essentially nothing else for the past 20 years. What should be an impressive -- if somewhat hyperbolic -- credential becomes instead reason to pause and question his credibility.
In other places he goes on at great and enthusiastic length about the achievements of various entrepreneurs or executives and their companies. FedEx comes up a number of times, for example. On first reference, he compares the company to the United States Postal Service, saying, "You never hear someone complain that 'it got lost in the FedEx.'" Never? That's a pretty strong statement.
It is only some 230 pages later, in the last of the eight references he makes to FedEx, that he notes that he has done work for the company. It's hard not to look back then and wonder how much of what he has written about FedEx is an accurate assessment of the quality of their operation and how much is simply plumping for a client.
Rupert Murdoch, Roger Ailes, and Fox News are referred to at least 16 times. Indeed, the accomplishments of Fox and these executives have been impressive; less impressive is having this repeatedly pointed out by one of their consultants.
Pick a Side
Anyone who has followed American politics for the past few decades might be forgiven for assuming that Luntz's full name was Republican-Pollster-Frank-Luntz. In recent years that moniker may have been supplanted by Fox-News-Analyst-Frank-Luntz.
Guber is identified, for the most part as CEO of a variety of entertainment companies -- currently the Mandalay Entertainment Group; formerly Sony Pictures and Polygram Entertainment, among others -- but also as Democratic-Fundraiser-Peter-Guber. The above-the-title, on-the-cover endorsement quote for Tell to Win comes from Bill Clinton.
These associations will do something to raise flags -- or hackles -- on various parts of the political spectrum. That shouldn't be the case; it should not disqualify the content of either book. The question of efficacy should be values-neutral in this context. Readers should be interested in learning effective communication strategies from effective communicators -- regardless of the purposes to which these teachers have put their skills.
Luntz in particular makes this very difficult -- a bizarre failing for someone with an ear so exquisitely attuned to what communication strategies work and what strategies fail. He was instrumental in the writing of the 1994 "Contract with America," which Republicans rode to their first majority in Congress in 40 years. A key aspect of that document was the highly successful "re-branding" of the inheritance or estate tax as the "death tax," a phrase that endures some 17 years later. In 2010, he successfully promoted the phrase "government takeover" to describe President Obama's healthcare reform program.
One of the clear overlaps in the communication strategies that Luntz and Guber advocate is their repeatedly reiterated focus on getting an audience to be emotionally in sync with what you are saying and -- more importantly -- what you are selling. "Winners don't preach; they persuade," Luntz tells us. "Winners clearly articulate their own principles and kindly, subtly invite you to adopt them." Guber tells us, "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 storytelling."
Inevitably, both authors will sometimes irritate or alienate their readers: They are writing about Big Personalities, in business and in politics and people of such stature evoke a variety of strong responses; one person's hero is another person's villain.
Guber, for example, tells a story about his personal involvement in raising money for Bill Clinton at a crucial juncture in the 1992 presidential primaries. Questions were beginning to come out about Clinton's behavior regarding the Vietnam-era military draft; allegations about sexual infidelity were becoming louder and more specific. Clinton lost the New Hampshire primary, and his funding began to dry up. He called Guber, to round up emergency funding from Hollywood Democrats. The campaign needed $90,000 and needed it fast.
What he said on that phone call, Guber tells us, was, "Peter, this is High Noon." The power of that narrative reference wins the day: Who has the guts to stand with the lone heroic figure when it matters most?Guber raises the money in an afternoon.
You like and respect Bill Clinton or you revile him. He's a polarizing figure. But the anecdote is relatively neutral regarding Clinton himself. Rather, it hinges on the use of a specific narrative to achieve a specific goal. Guber tells the story and moves on.
By way of contrast, Luntz -- among other things -- takes a couple of gratuitous shots at Jimmy Carter that are simply puerile, and that serve no constructive or demonstrative purpose whatsoever. In credibly arguing that winners should under-promise and over-deliver, he writes: "In an era of broken trust in institutions -- where everyone promises the world and delivers peanuts (and that's not a political poke at Jimmy Carter) -- doing the opposite immediately distinguishes you."
Well it didn't have to be a poke at Jimmy Carter -- the reference to peanuts notwithstanding -- but it is now. One need not like or respect Jimmy Carter, one need not believe that world leaders, current or former, should be treated with respect to be perplexed by this. How does this jibe with his admonition that winners argue with kindness and subtlety?
Luntz goes into extended sidebars in which he explains his version of constitutional law and the proper role of the federal government. He lauds the pharmaceutical industry and excoriates Obama's healthcare reform legislation; he praises private initiative and derides government. He's entitled to his opinions -- some readers will love them and some will hate them. But why is he telling us this here? Is this an autobiography or a business guide to successful communication?
The study of success, from a variety of different angles, through a variety of different lenses, both for entertainment and for edification, goes back to the dawn of the written word. We want to know what makes people successful for practical reasons. We want to know what makes people successful for philosophical reasons.
Both Luntz and Guber are working solidly in this tradition; both Luntz and Guber have interesting and valuable things to say. What Guber appears to have had that Luntz did not -- either internally or externally -- is a good editor, someone to take his manuscript and say, "You've said everything you wanted to say in this draft. Now let's go back and cut out everything that you don't need to say, so we can arrive at a tight, readable, broadly appealing final draft. We can save what we cut out for your commentary pieces."