Once upon a time, in the land down under, a young girl dreamed of taking on giants — and winning.

For Melanie Perkins, the giants were the corporate titans that dominated the graphic design industry. 

Melanie, a university student, found herself frustrated by the design software options available. They were all:

  • Too expensive
  • Ridiculously complex
  • Difficult to learn

So Melanie created an easy-to-use online tool called (drumroll) Canva.

Yep, that Canva.

Currently valued at ~$26B, Canva is the world’s most valuable female-founded startup. 

With 100m+ users, Canva is a sure bet today. Its latest – and biggest – acquisition of Affinity makes it an even more formidable challenger of graphic design giants like Adobe.

But until 2013, Melanie had a hell of a time convincing investors to back her idea.

Melanie told Trendster Carmine Gallo that 100+ potential investors rejected her initial pitch, admitting that her presentation was “pretty terrible.”

The transformative moment occurred when Melanie discovered a time-tested formula for telling her story: the three-act structure.

The three-act structure is a simple and effective template that heroic stories have followed for centuries. (It’s likely your favorite Keanu Reeves movie follows it, too.)

It’s used for movies, novels, and any great story, including our favorite: a founder’s story. 

Here’s how to leverage it to nail your pitch.

Act 1: The Setup

The first act sets the scene: characters are introduced and the story’s setting is established.

In a business presentation or startup pitch, it highlights the story’s key figures and introduces an inciting incident that moves them to take action.

For example, when two friends sharing a San Francisco apartment couldn’t pay the bills, they decided to rent air mattresses to strangers who came to town for a conference. 

Thus, Airbnb was born.

Here are some things to consider when crafting your setup:

🦸 What’s your origin story? (Jeff Bezos does this beautifully)

👫 What are the unique and relatable aspects of your background? (It’s all about connecting with people).

❓What questions can you plant in the mind of the audience that will be answered later? 

Act 2: The Conflict

The second act is where the action happens: The hero is tested and must overcome challenges to achieve their goal. 

Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin calls this act “intention and obstacle.” Every great story must have it, he says.

In business, act two explains why your idea should exist. If you provide a strong enough “why,” your audience will anticipate act three: the “how.”  

Before Steve Jobs revealed the first iPhone in 2007, he explained the problem — smartphones at the time had fixed keyboards that took up screen space. 

Jobs holding the first version of the iPhone. Source: Getty Images

When discussing Apple’s competitors, Jobs called them “the usual suspects.” They were making your life harder. What jerks.

Act two is critical in a startup pitch because it explains why customers need the product. (If you offer a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist, nobody will care.)

Act 3: The Resolution

In the third and final act, the hero finds a solution to the problem, achieves their dream, and — this is critical — transforms the world for the better.

This is the time to focus on specific benefits of your product, service, or idea, while walking the audience through the details.

So what happened to Melanie in her early Canva pitches? 

She didn’t have act one or act two. She started with the solution: Canva’s features. But few investors understood the world of graphic design or why anyone would care.

For Melanie, painting a picture of people who were frustrated by the complexity of software served as a universal pain point.

“A lot of people can relate to being completely overwhelmed with Photoshop or design tools,” Melanie told Carmine. “So it became important to tell that part of the story, especially for investors who didn’t understand the problem. Once we figured it out and changed the way we told our story, it was a transformative moment.”

Screenshot 2024-03-26 at 11.06.08 AMSource: Getty Images

Melanie had no technical background, business degree, or contacts in Silicon Valley. 

And now she’s rolling in billions.

You might have a great product or idea, completely novel and innovative — but if you can’t tell the story, no one will listen.

The three-act structure ensures the power of your story will match the power of your idea.

Carmine Gallo is a Trends contributor, founder of Gallo Communications Group, and a 3x WSJ bestselling author. His books include The Bezos Blueprint, Talk Like TED, and The Presentation Secrets of Steve Jobs. He wrote this piece specifically for Trends.