Michael Jackson, the Snake, the Mouse — and a Lesson in Drama

Hollyblog: “This,” said Michael, “is Muscles.” Inside, a massive snake was coiled around a tree branch. A white mouse was hiding behind a pile of wood shavings.

Last Updated: July 23, 2015 @ 8:20 PM

The following is an excerpt from the just-released book, ‘Tell to Win':

Once you’ve got your hero, what gets the emotion moving? What holds us spellbound, begging for more? Michael Jackson taught me in no uncertain terms, the answer is drama.

Back in 1991, Jackson already was a force to be reckoned with. After renewing his contract with Sony for a record-setting $65 million, he released his eighth album, “Dangerous¸” with the singles “Black or White” and “Remember the Time,” both of which dominated the pop charts. As CEO of Sony Pictures, I’d sat in on the studio production of that album and was overwhelmed by Michael’s creative intensity and perfectionism.

His ambition knew no bounds. But when Sony’s most important musical asset invited me to his home in Encino to discuss his plans to get into movies and television, I was taken aback. Michael had proven he knew everything there was to know about pop music, but movies were a different animal. He wanted to produce as well as act. That meant telling stories. Could he do it?

I didn’t even have to ask the question. “In both films and music,” Michael said, “you have to know where the drama is and how to present it.” He gave me a long, intense stare and abruptly stood up. “Let me show you.”

He led me upstairs to the hallway outside his bedroom, where we stopped in front of a huge glass terrarium. “This,” he said, “is Muscles.”

Inside, a massive snake was coiled around a tree branch. His head was tracking something in the opposite corner of the terrarium.

Michael pointed with his finger at the object of Muscles’ obsession. A little white mouse was trying to hide behind a pile of wood shavings.

I said hopefully, “Are they friends?”

“Do they look it?”

“No. The mouse is trembling.”

Michael said, “We have to feed Muscles live mice, otherwise he won’t eat. Dead ones don’t get his attention.”

“So why doesn’t he just go ahead and eat it?”

He said, “Because he enjoys the game. First he uses fear to get the mouse’s attention, then he waits, building tension. Finally, when the mouse is so terrified it can’t move, Muscles will close in.”

That snake had the attention of that mouse, and that mouse had the attention of that snake — and Michael Jackson had my attention.

“That’s drama,” he said.

“It sure is!” I said. “This story has everything — stakes, suspense, power, death, good and evil, innocence and danger. I can’t stand it. And I can’t stop watching.”

“Exactly,” he said. “What’s going to happen next? Even if you know what it is, you don’t know how or when.”

“Maybe the mouse will escape.”

Michael let out one of his high, strange laughs. “Maybe.”

If I’d had the slightest doubt about Jackson’s command as a teller of stories, it evaporated that day. His telling to win profoundly and clearly taught me that nothing grabs our attention faster than the need to know what happens next?

Back at UCLA, I asked Dan Siegel to help me understand from his perspective as a neuroscientist why people are so enthralled by drama. Siegel pointed out that emotions don’t occur spontaneously. Nor, as any actor knows, can they be summoned at will. Emotions have to be aroused. “And arousal gets heightened,” Siegel said, “when you realize, I don’t know if the mountain lion’s still there; I don’t know if the spaceship is going to get back; I’m not sure he’s going to win the race. You have to have tension between expectation and uncertainty. Emotional tension drives you to think it might go this way, but it might go that way, and that makes you wonder, what will happen next?”

The more you wonder what will happen next, the more you pay attention. And the more attention you pay, the more you hear, notice, and retain.

One reason I was so helplessly enthralled as I watched Michael Jackson’s mouse and snake was that they were enacting a story of primal desire and dread. Somewhere deep in our DNA, we all have this story lurking because, at some stage of our evolution, if not in our more immediate existence, we lived this story. We were the weaker prey that hid trembling inside the cave from the saber-tooth lurking outside.

Of course, most business storytellers don’t need to set dramatic stakes as high as death or survival. But even business stories are told best if they trigger the conflict between dread and desire. Desire is a core human need which in business may translate as landing a job, motivating employees, keeping an account, impressing a boss, successfully launching a product, or securing a brand. The more we desire something, the greater our fear of not achieving it. And that emotional tension engages your audience because it makes them feel “what’s in it for them.”

Excerpted from “Tell To Win: Connect, Persuade, and Triumph with the Hidden Power of Story,” by Peter Guber (Crown Business).