How to get Fidel Castro to greenlight your TV show

March 11, 2011, 11:43 PM UTC

Fidel Castro

By Peter Guber, contributor

Have you ever been in the audience when a speaker who’s lost his or her audience just keeps going with the prepared remarks? Do you remember how that made you feel as a listener? Bored? Annoyed? Anxious to escape? Whatever your reaction, it likely didn’t help you absorb the speaker’s message.

Tellers who stubbornly stay “on point” may be afraid to diverge from their script into uncharted waters. Or they may feel that too much time and money have gone into preparation to toss the plan aside. But neither excuse will bring back your listeners’ attention, and unless you have their attention, why bother telling your story?

Fortunately, most audiences actually want to be reeled back in. If you’re prepared to improvise, and you take advantage of whatever energy, signals, cues, or props are in the room, you can almost always salvage your tell. It may help to remember that you never have to memorize the truth. If you stay true to yourself, whatever “pops out” in that moment of spontaneity will be received by your listeners as authentic and will likely reinforce your connection to them in a way that “sticking to the script” does not allow. The other aspect of a great “tell,” as I learned with the most unlikely of audiences some thirty years ago, is to trust in serendipity.

When I was CEO of PolyGram, we launched a television series called Oceanquest. This early reality show took a team of former Navy SEALS and expert divers and scientists led by Al Giddings around the world to film aquatic adventures in locations ranging from the Truk Lagoon in Micronesia to the waters under the ice of Antarctica. Our host was Miss Universe Sean Wetherly, a novice who provided the emotional connection to the audience at home.

One critical segment was scripted to tell the story of the forbidden waters of Havana Harbor, where wrecks of galleons and pirate ships, which had carried treasure as far back as the sixteenth century, lay on the ocean floor. There was just one problem: it was the early 1980s, and neither the U.S. government nor the communist regime of Fidel Castro wanted a team of Americans filming there. By pleading that our mission was purely scientific and peaceful, I finally was able to get permission through the offices of former President Nixon. However, getting Cuban officials to sign off on our shoot in Havana Harbor was another matter. Millions of dollars and the success of the whole project hung in the balance, so after weeks of being stonewalled, we gambled that we could win approval more easily if we were physically on Cuban turf. We sailed ahead into Hemingway Marina and waited for Castro’s response.

A local official finally turned up to say that Castro, himself a scuba diver, had taken an interest in our project and would be visiting the harbor to see our equipment. That ostensibly was his only interest. I asked if we could use this visit to request the president’s permission to film under the harbor. The official shrugged. “El Jefe will be here ten minutes only. You are free to ask permission, but remember the rules—no autographs and no gifts.”

Castro had already outlasted multiple American presidents, and what ever he said here was law, but I was determined to seize this opportunity. If he was interested in scuba diving, I would have Giddings tell him a ten-minute story about the nature of our equipment, which would compel him to give us permission.

We threw ourselves into readying and setting our story, with props consisting of the most sophisticated gear on the ship—underwater vehicles, diving suits, high-tech cameras, and other cool “equipment.” All this was on display on the main deck when Castro arrived, entourage in tow.

Noticing the No Shoes sign affixed to the gangplank, El Jefe ordered his minions to unlace their boots before boarding our vessel. Then he strolled around the deck eyeing our toys. But nothing seemed to catch his attention. Realizing that our chance was slipping away, I began firing bullets—data about what we wanted to search for in Havana Harbor and reasons why we wanted to search for it. Castro glanced at his watch. The rest of his group, taking their cue, began to move toward the gangplank.

Suddenly Castro’s demeanor changed. Sean Wetherly had appeared! And having just finished some shooting, she was still wearing her bathing costume. This piece of equipment stimulated more than El Jefe’s national pride.

But then he noticed something else. Sean was holding a tooth as big as her hand, which had come from a 250-foot prehistoric great shark called a megalodon. This creature was some ten times larger than any shark living today, and its tooth clearly interested the president, so Sean handed it to him. I seized on this serendipity to reset my story into a tale of the megalodon.

As El Jefe fingered this enormous tooth, I told him how this gargantuan predator once prowled Havana’s waters. I folded Cuba’s ancient past into its present, tucking in anecdotes we’d unearthed about the famous and controversial incidents that had occurred in Havana Harbor during its centuries at the heart of world commerce, diplomacy, intrigue, and war. I closed my story with a call to action, saying we as filmmakers wanted to create an enduring record—an artifact, if you will—that told the world the story of Cuba’s historic Havana Harbor.

The ten minutes we’d been promised stretched to four hours as Castro caught the story we’d told him and pitched it back with new and different suggestions for elements we might want to film. He gave us blanket permission to shoot anywhere in the harbor we wanted. My wife asked, and he willingly autographed virtually everything from T-shirts to dive equipment. And he later sent us a cache of lobsters and cigars—proof that successful stories don’t always follow the script.

–Excerpted from Tell To Win: Connect, Persuade, and Triumph with the Hidden Power of Story Copyright @ 2011 by Peter Guber.  Reprinted by Permission of Crown Business, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc., New York.