Ray Rudowski
Dec 5, 2018

Top 3 communications mistakes of startup CEOs and founders

And how to avoid them. Plus, why startup founders need to emulate professional athletes.

Top 3 communications mistakes of startup CEOs and founders

Forget the “elevator pitch”, that’s old-school. No sane person today buttonholes a banker or CEO in elevators—they’re all too busy looking at their smartphones, surrounded by security, wearing headphones or otherwise avoiding any eye contact.   

Since launching my own communications consultancy in November, I’ve started spending more time around CEOs and the founders of startups because I’m now one of them. I go to where they go and work where they work.  I’m also trying to differentiate myself in a world cluttered with experts and hacks.

Often I’m asked that age-old question: “What makes you different?” This is where my concept of the ‘one-word story’ pays dividends. If you can’t communicate your story in one word, you’ve lost the first round of the unofficial interview, and there is no second chance.  

Brain-teaser: Who is the most effective spokesperson? I’m not talking about a specific individual, because everyone will say Richard Branson, or some other high-powered rockstar CEO. The question is really pointing to which professional group is the most effective at telling its story? Give up? 

Professional athletes. Watch any post-game interview and take notes. Here’s a recent example:

So it’s all about growth, and we all have grown from that moment eight years ago. So I kind of leave the past in the past and always focus on the present and see what happens in the future.

So said LA Lakers basketball star LeBron James following a recent win in Cleveland, a city he left eight years ago to join a rival team, which left many fans angry at the time. Read his statement again and let the words sink in. He’s bridged an 8-year gap filled with hostility and confusion, and shared an amazing redemption story, all in 39 simple words.

For corporate types, the very thought of using professional athletes as positive examples of how to speak publicly may seem counterintuitive—but it works. They are sometimes controversial, often angry, self-pitying and surprisingly candid, but they are always concise and focused on what their fans expect from them.

A simple prescription for channelling your inner professional athlete is addressing the three biggest communications mistakes CEOs and founders of startups make.

Mistake #1 - Pushing your ‘objectives’ instead having an actual ‘story’: You talk too much about how you overcame obstacles and struggles or how great your products and services are. But you don’t talk enough about how your target customer will overcome their obstacles and struggles or how they’ll be more competitive using whatever it is you’re selling.

Mistake #2 - Watching other CEOs speak on panels or appear in media and thinking, “I could do that…”: Would you ever get up in front of an audience and play the piano without taking a few lessons? Why would you think it would be OK to get on a panel or appear in a video without getting coaching? In my own experiences in coaching and training CEOs I’ve found that the fragmentation of media means there are now more channels and platforms to speak in, making it critical for you to differentiate yourself from your peers.            

Mistake #3 - Confusing ‘speaking’ with story-telling: Somehow in the course of your amazing corporate career you’ve forgotten just how great it was to be a kid and listen to your mom, dad or grandparent read you a bedtime story. Remember how they brought it to life, often adopting the voices or mannerisms of the characters in the story? Instead, you go on CNBC and answer questions, rattle off facts or try to memorize what you’ve been coached to talk about. You should be focusing on the biggest challenges in your marketplace and what it takes to overcome them—a story you too are familiar with because it inspired you to find a solution. 

The reason I spend so much time on the one-word story concept is because if you can tell your story in one-word you can find ways to bring it to life through examples, pictures and personal anecdotes—just like your parents did reading you that bedtime story when you were young.

 Remember that feeling, and your customers will too.


Ray Rudowski is managing director and founder of Epic Communications Limited. Before that he spent 16 years in regional roles with Edelman and Hill & Knowlton. His one-word story is “specialization.”

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