Etiquette and storytelling tips from Silicon Valley

This really interesting article from writer Romain Serman about etiquette in Silicon Valley made me re-think my aversion to bullet points. While I still don’t like producing bullets for speaker notes, I’ll make an exception for email. Serman proposes a three-bullet limit:

  • What do you do? (2 lines)
  • Why is it exciting? (2 lines)
  • What do you want? (1 line)

If you’re not an investor seeking funding, as in Serman’s example above, you may be able to lop off the first two bullets. (If your boss doesn’t know what you do, you have bigger problems than lengthy emails.) But these three bullets should work in just about any situation:

  • What do you want?
  • Why is it important?
  • What action should I take?

This is not just a matter of etiquette—of saving people’s time. It’s also about not trying their patience. Most of us read emails on our phones these days, and tiny screens can only convey so much information at a glance. Save the expansive writing for another medium, for instance…

The etiquette of meetings

Serman’s etiquette pointers won my heart several times over. His focus on punctuality—did you know that one venture capital firm fines its people $10 for every minute they’re late for a meeting?  (I have a former boss who’d make them a ton of money.) His helpful list of clichés to avoid:

It is fair to assume that “everything is awesome” in the Valley. Your product is “the best in the world”. Your technology is “unique”. Your team is “world-class”. Your revenue is “growing super fast” and your market is “f*ing huge”. Yes, you “will change the world”. In short, you are “killing it”. But I would recommend deleting these words from a) your vocabulary, b) your deck, c) your pitch.

But the thing that, as my  next-door neighbor used to say, “made my socks roll up and down” will not surprise regular readers: “Rule #9: Storytelling.”

As Serman notes, “It’s the most effective way to engage with people and raise awareness. It is the best way to sell.” (Emphasis in the original, here and below)

“…every pitch must be a story. Now, how do you do this? A good story connects your point to something bigger. Could be a mission. Could be an emotion. Could be a journey. But whatever it may be, it must engage the other person. A story is a well-designed script. It is a missile. With a precise target.”

Whatever you write, tell stories

If it helps, think of your story as a more expansive version of the three-bullet email.

Talk about what you want—help the listeners connect emotionally to your goal as passionately as you do.

Tell them why what you want is important—again, this should connect to a larger point.

Leave them with a call to action. If you’ve done your job with the first two, they should be fired up and ready to act. Be clear about what they need to do.

I’m not sure I’d call it “etiquette”—just good writing—but Serman’s rules can help you succeed, in Silicon Valley and beyond.


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