Being able to tell a compelling story is critical for anyone embarking on a quest to build something that will last.
I continue to organize and add to my library of resources to help founders accelerate the revenue of their company and the topic of storytelling comes up over and over. I’ve written about perfecting your vision, mission, and reasons to believe on this blog in the past.
- How does the story drive the business?
- What are the benefits to crafting a compelling narrative?
- What’s a useful storytelling framework?
- What are some actionable elements that you can utilize right now?
To answer these questions, Robbie Crabtree and I worked on this essay based on his work as an independent consultant to Founders of Pre-seed to Series A companies.
The essay is below. I hope you enjoy it, and feel free to reach out or follow me for real time updates (@vikdug).
I can make a case for almost any part of company building being the most difficult. It could be raising capital, hiring, selling, building the product or offering, or marketing. Market timing is out of your control, determining the right business model is not nearly is challenging, but still hard. With all the challenges that come with building a company, I believe the most difficult part for the founder is translating their vision into words. The story you create must connect with people in a way that makes sense and creates the necessary emotion. One of the biggest obstacles to overcome is translating what makes sense in your head to what will resonate with your audience.
I’ve observed technical founders using data, numbers, and a generally dry approach to their story format. Discussing the features, advantages, and benefits of the offering doesn’t work with customers and they are the wrong talking points if you’re looking to connect with investors or employee candidates. For business-oriented (or non-technical) founders, I observe a great deal of rambling and focus on the wrong ideas. Winging it won't work. Investors will leave (if they listen to all of your story) thinking: unpolished, unprepared, and unworthy of funding.
You fail to fundraise, fail to focus on the key priorities, and fail to fill the funnel with the right talent. You might have had some notion of goals, but you failed to meet any of them. You feel dejected and defeated. You need a better message. You want a compelling story that has a greater purpose and takes people you are speaking to on a journey.
Why does the story matter?
A Google search on the power of stories will yield over 3 billion search results. The story drives the purpose. It sets the tone for all fundraising. Even if you don’t use the full story pitch that gets developed, it allows you to think in a story format that hits the right parts at the right time. You can take the different pieces and use them properly in any conversation.
In more formal settings, the story pitch allows the founder to set the stage and create wonder in the investor's mind before getting into the deck and questions. The story brings everything else to life and at the end of the day investors want to feel a sense of safety, curiosity, and an idea that will be massive in the years to come. They want to go on an adventure where they see big returns and a sure thing.
A story does this and allows the investor’s mind do much of the heavy lifting for the founder. Especially in early fundraising rounds. Pre-seed through Series A rely disproportionately on a great story about the founder, team, and vision.
The story pitch also enables the founder to stay grounded and focused. It’s the roadmap, the north star to guide them. When making decisions they can think of the story they are telling.
It’s the way to attract employees and talent. These employees feel a sense of wonder, belonging, and adventure. Then they also know the mission and vision because they know the story. They buy in and push harder.
Startups aren’t a sure thing. It’s why the story needs to capture promising talent to sign on. Otherwise they will just go join the army of Google or AirBnB employees. Great perks, high salary, and a sense of safety. But all of that can be overcome with the right story. The one that makes people see a bigger and better future. The one that leaves them saying, I want to be played by this actor when they make a movie about us.
But a company is only as good as it’s sales. At the end of the day, the vision must come to life. That’s where customers come in.
Customers need to believe in more than just a product or service. If it’s just a product or service, it can be replaced. If they are a part of something bigger, they are hooked. It’s why people tune into the Super Bowl for the ads. It’s why people love Nike, Apple, Coca-Cola, and so many other brands. They tell a story. The product or service is just a part of the story.
Too many founders sell a product, service, or idea. They need to sell an identity, a story, and a purpose.
So now that we know why it’s critical for every part of a successful startup, it’s time to answer the how.
The Perfect Pitch: Purpose, Passion, and Potential (The 3P Framework)
This is the problem and solution section. It’s the current day situation that the founder solves.
Typically, this part of the pitch will come early to help frame the rest of the story. Purpose allows founders to demonstrate to VCs or Angels that they understand the market and how their idea fits into it.
The key to this section is highlighting strengths of the specific approach while also dismissing or overcoming and potential objections or competitors. Investors need to shake their head yes to what is being laid out. They should be able to see it come to life as a real problem that needs solving. The language in this section needs to be filled with confidence and perhaps even a level of bravado. That self-belief goes a long way in delivering a compelling story.
This is the founder and team. Why do they care and what makes them the right people to solve the problem.
There are a lot of smart people out there that want to make money and investors need to know that the group behind the idea are the right ones to bet on. At the end of the day that’s what it is, a bet.
Will the founder run through a wall to get the job done? This section should show that the founder and team are high agency. Peter Thiel, Jeff Bezos, Keith Rabois, Paul Graham, and Eric Weinstein have all talked about this idea. Simply put, the founder and team must demonstrate that they are an absolute no brainer to succeed. No question about it.
The passion part of the pitch should feel like walking into a casino, putting all the money on double zero, and knowing that it’s a sure thing.
This is where the vision can go. Potential market and opportunities in the future. Oftentimes this is the part that establishes its ability to be venture backed.
Investors take a lot of losses. They cover those losses with huge wins and that’s what the potential needs to make clear. This is the part that Elon Musk always does so well. He sells the vision of going to Mars or fully autonomous vehicles like it’s the most common sense outcome that exists.
A founder needs to design this part of the pitch to be filled with visual and descriptive language. There should be references to other wildly successful companies either explicitly or implicitly. This is the perfect place to “think different” like the classic Apple advertisement. The investors should think it’s either insane or genius.
Developing your story
So with this 3 P Framework, how do you achieve the results that you are looking for?
Most of the information you need is sitting between the ears of a few key members of your team. So start by doing a deep dive including any team members necessary.
This is a two part process. First, write all about yourselves, the team, why you care, and the vision going forward. This gives the first bit of insight into the founder, team, and vision.
For the next part, interview the founders to get to the essence of the founder and the vision.
Write naturally so you can start to get a sense of the voice of the founder and the startup.
Here are two key questions to answer:
- What event or experience made you decide to start the company?
- What’s the absolute best outcome for the company?
Find the best interviewer, writer, and storyteller you know.
Over the next week or two they will take all the information you’ve uncovered in Step 1 and craft a narrative.
You’re looking for an individual who understands the creative process, fundraising, storytelling, persuasion tactics, delivery mechanics, making your words sing, and crafting an argument. The creative process is a mixture of story crafting, speechwriting, and preparation for how it can be delivered. In the first draft step they will write, research, and refine. In these two weeks they are looking for things that will make the story a success.
They will provide you with an overall theme of the story. This can be thought of a little bit like a tagline. For a great reference think of MLK’s “I have a dream”.
Next is understanding the hook. You are looking for your writer to help you launch into the story with the right question, imagine language, or perhaps even directly into a story. It depends on the information you have provided and what will be most effective.
Next, you come up with the strongest ending possible to make it stick in the minds of anyone who hears it. This should put you in the driver’s seat for any pitch deck or questions that may come up. I want you playing offense. I’ve observed the best way to do this is to include either a dramatic conclusion, or a series of sentences leading to a memorable conclusion.
Many people stop right here. But, what’s the difference between someone who is great and someone who is elite? Read on.
An elite individual has a deep understanding of speeches, pop culture, and moments in the zeitgeist because these elements pull on nostalgia and other emotions in the listener without them even realizing what has happened. It creates triggers in the listener that make them feel connected to your message because of the flood of emotions from past experiences.
With these pieces in places, you can now think through other references that you can drop throughout the story that will resonate with a listener. Some are direct but most are indirect. It could be a line or even just the way you want something delivered. Think of Barack Obama’s “Yes we can”. There are many ways to use that to signal to a listener and touch them emotionally.
It’s a similar idea to easter eggs in movies. It makes it more interesting and sticky to the listener. These references also allow us to use very emotional language by tying it into other ideas. These references look to history, literature, art, ads, and other businesses. It’s a process of weaving them in and using enough of them to hopefully hit at least 1 with every listener. Even if they don’t realize it. It’s a sense of deja vu.
At this point you will begin speaking your story out loud and filming yourself to be able to watch how it sounds. You want to make sure the delivery matches the writing. You now have your first draft.
Over the coming days and week (no more than 7 days) you will make comments, review, edit, and pull out what you love most and what you don’t wish to include.
Test with your inner circle and review the feedback. You want to dial in on the voice and vision you have after seeing what is possible with the first draft. At this point one of two things happens.
- The first draft is about 90% right and there are only minor edits to be made.
- The first draft showed you the way to think about your vision. It also show the changes from the initial part of the process when you were uncovering much of what was in your brain. This typically means after the first draft you’ve likely dialed in on the true direction you want to go with it. Sometimes this is just substantial tweaks. Other times you may find yourself discarding the entire first draft. It’s normal.
If the first draft was 90% right, the simple edits and changes are made within a few days and you can rework again with your inner circle.
If the feedback on the first draft highlighted the need for substantial changes then plan on another week of work to transform it into the story you desire.
This process looks similar to step two in how you formed the story pitch except now you have a clear direction from the feedback.
Discuss any final feedback. One final meeting to discuss the completed version. This meeting includes final insights into why the story pitch is how it is. You want to go over the intent of each part of the narrative.
What you want to get feedback on now is delivery.
One thing to keep in mind is that the story will evolve over time. So the story at pre-seed will look different from Series A. If the founder is leading a successful startup, the story should evolve. That’s healthy.
I help to frame that evolution in a way that continues to connect to investors, employees, and customers. The initial story I tend to create sets the stage for this growth and evolution. When it’s time to let the story evolve, you can go back through the process with new inputs that will guide the new evolved story.
One that continues to allow the company to have both a vision for present day and what’s coming. The story will lead to the success of the company.
My job is to help the founder find their voice, share their vision, and live their story. I hope this essay helps you find your unique voice and vision so you can best showcase your value to the world.
If you made this far, I hope you enjoyed the essay.
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