“Your success doesn’t come from what you think. It comes from what you can get other people to think. And how people think can only be influenced by what they see you do or what they hear you say. So you have four choices: do it better, say it better, do both better, or fail.”
These were the opening remarks of Real Ventures Partner, John Stokes, when speaking to the 2017 FounderFuel cohort of tech founders about the value of narrative in pitching. While entrepreneurs know they need to pitch to investors to secure funding (as well as to clients to get sales), many seem to forget that success isn’t just about having a great idea and executing it well. Dazzling potential investors involves creating a compelling story. Fortunately there is a tested formula for doing this.
The first memorable stories from childhood use it. The Three Bears. The Three Little Pigs. The Three Billy Goats Gruff. There is a principle in writing called the Rule of Three that suggests the use of trios is not only more engaging and entertaining, but also more memorable.
It’s not only in children’s stories that this device proves effective. Martin Luther King Jr., the civil rights activist and preacher, used the rule of three throughout his many influential speeches. By listing three ideas together, they stick in one’s mind: “insult, injustice and exploitation”; “justice, goodwill, and brotherhood.” And of course, repetition of the same thought three times makes a statement nearly impossible to forget, as in the song Dr. King quoted in his “I Have a Dream” speech: “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”
The rule of three won’t be effective, however, unless a startup has a compelling message. And in order to communicate a story quickly and effectively, founders need to spend a great deal of time preparing. As Winston Churchill once said, “If I am to speak ten minutes, I need a week for preparation; If an hour, I am ready now.” A product might be a feat of engineering, it may be the solution to the world’s greatest problems, it may be the best idea since the electric light, but if its founders can’t quickly and effectively communicate why, then they will likely fail.
Before crafting their pitch, entrepreneurs need to think carefully about what investors will find most compelling. Two main aspects of the pitch are the startup’s origin story and company’s vision. Can the founders communicate these in such a way that it’s clear their team is the best-suited to attack their chosen problem? Could they convince America—like John F. Kennedy did in his “Moon Speech”—to put a man on the moon?
While developing these stories, founders should also consider the words used and the length of each statement. Using the rule of three, the number of statements that make up a thought, and the number of thoughts in a pitch should be carefully crafted. Most high school English teachers still insist their students do the same: use three ideas to support a claim, three claims to support a thesis. Once founders have these elements in place, they are not only more likely to secure investment, but also to attract talent, sell their products, and build high-functioning teams.
Now while this might sound simple, it can take a good deal of coaching and development to find the true story of a startup. This is one of the reasons why it’s so valuable for founders to work with VCs, to participate in accelerator programs, and to seek out the numerous services available to small business owners through non-profits and government organizations. They can also practice pitching at conferences and pitch contests—one that is coming up soon is BDO’s VC Day 2018, where up-and-coming entrepreneurs and startups will have the opportunity to pitch their ideas to a panel of venture capitalists from firms including Real Ventures, OMERS Ventures and Vanedge Capital.
If an entrepreneur believes in their product, then it’s vital they tell the right story. By using the Rule of Three, the right story becomes much easier to tell.
Lauren Jane Heller is the Director of Communications at Real Ventures