The street-smart pitch deck: 5 secrets you need to know

If you had $86 billion in cash-on-hand like Google, maybe you should be looking into teleportation, buying Mars and acquiring NASA, as this whimsical rendering suggests.

The problem with most pitch decks is that they’re trying to do as much or more, except that the founders may have closer to 86 dollars on hand. Of course, that’s hyperbole, but the dead-on truth is that most pitch decks fail. Why? Five reasons.

1. They don’t tell a story.

People listen to stories and react to them. Yes, even soulless venture capitalists and angel investors. So when your deck throws in a couple of slides about the market size, citing Gartner, IDC or whomever, and then follows that with the team, the name of the product and how you’re marketing’s going to work because you’re going to “embrace social media, leverage partner contacts, speak at major industry events,” the person whose money you want has no idea who you really are, why your company exists, why you’re idea’s important (or if it is), or how this fits together.

Putting arbitrary facts in a deck is like throwing dry spaghetti against the wall.

To know if might be telling a story, ask yourself:

  • If there’s a reason your company/idea exists (that’s the motive);
  • What are you doing differently? — or, alternatively: What’s your superpower?;
  • Why should the listener believe what you’re trying to do is feasible and achievable?
  • Does the listener, that prospective investor, know what you are talking about? Could he explain in his own words what you’re trying to do and why?
  • Why is this going to give anyone a motivation to choose your product or service?;
  • How is your character arc going to evolve? What are you going to have to do in the business to reach the people who can help you achieve your goal? — and how much money are you going to need to do it, including how you’re going to spend it (sources and uses of funds);
  • Which obstacles does the main character (you/your company) have to overcome in her hero’s journey (e.g., who’s the big, bad competition? — your enemies)?; Who are your friends?
  • What’s the ultimate resolution, i.e., what is your definition (your metrics) of success?

FIX IT. The acid test: Take 10-15 minutes, no more, and record yourself tell it. No video first. Have others listen and see if it makes sense. If it does, add the video and repeat. If you get bored or other people tune out; if while you’re listening, you hear something that doesn’t seem to belong there, note it. Then fix all of them.

2. Boiling the ocean

Most of you have heard this term before: trying to do everything, to conquer the entire world, even though you’ve got a few people and your ask is a couple of million. No one can do that. Steve Jobs didn’t simultaneously invent personal computers and smartphones and iPods and he wouldn’t have even if could have. In Dirty Harry’s inimitable words, “A man’s got to know his limitations.”

Here are some promises I can make. You will not:

  • Acquire 100% market share in a year (probably ever).
  • Be able to launch 10 different versions of a product or 10 different pricing mechanisms.
  • Immediately dominate the US, Europe and Asia. Facebook started at one college. Then it spread to others. Eventually, it became so popular that even people’s dogs joined. But that came later.
  • Succeed when your margins are zero or negative

Immediately be featured in the NYT, WSJ, Wired and TechCrunch. Plus, if you are, it might be due to a scandal, not to your success. So be careful what you wish for.

FIX IT. You have to ruthlessly look at your plans and strip everything out that isn’t absolute essential to succeeding. If you’re forecasting one service to generate 80% of your revenues, but you’ve got 10 other services which together might generate 20% (and I’ve seen this many times), kill all 10 of the other services. Because they’re not serving you at all.

3. High-density graphics, words, ideas

Is there one place on a given slide that everyone’s eyes will go to? Or do they have to choose among multiple places? Because that latter choice doesn’t work.

Is the actual density of used space so high that you’re not getting an idea from a slide but reading an abstract from an academic paper? Or are you looking at an architectural diagram of a software system with 20 different components?

Are you saying so much that no one can understand your words? Would anyone know what “A cryptographically secure, peer-to-peer social media platform integrating multimedia, real-time interactions supporting teamwork across the global enterprise” was? Sure, that’s also hyperbolic, but many product and service descriptions aren’t much better.

How many times you have seen founders present a deck at a competition only to say: I have absolutely no idea what they do?

Are you using lots and lots of colors, so many that they all conflict with one another? Is there contrast? Do you have reverse text against a black background? Why? If people can’t read it or the presentation blinds them — or if the fonts are literally unreadable and mixed, then you are intentionally not communicating with anyone in your audience. Sure, this is simple stuff — but if it’s so simple, why in spite of the thousands of pieces of advice to the contrary, do we always see it?

FIX IT. One idea, one slide. Start with that. One deck, one font (except in extreme circumstances). One readable background with the type in a properly contrasting dark color that everyone can see. Phrases or a few words instead of long sentences. Graphics that people understand, not graphics that are Rorschach blots to be interpreted. After you’ve written your deck, review it without mercy. Remove everything that gets in the way: extra words, graphics, fonts, colors, even slides.

SPECIAL TRICK. If you can’t remove enough from a page, ask yourself what the most important point is. Then the next. Etc. Remove the least important one. Repeat until it’s readable and understandable. You can do the same thing with individual slides. Every single slide needs to justify its own existence. If it doesn’t, it just noise. Remove it.

4. Solving a problem that doesn’t need a solution.

Most toasters take 2-3 minutes to toast your bread. Now, imagine if for the same price, someone could make that 2-2.5 minutes or even 1.5-2.5 minutes. Is that going to change anyone’s life? Is anyone clamoring for that? Yet it would cost money to design, manufacture and produce. No one sees that as a problem.

Now, in contrast, suppose you could wash your clothes in 90 seconds? Is that a benefit? You might think so, but not really. Because it still takes time to dry them. Who outside of Kim Kardashian or Kanye West is going to pay for a 90-second clothes washer when they still have to wait for a dryer?

But suppose there were a 5-minute clothes washer and a 5-minute clothes dryer. People don’t necessarily see current washing and drying times as a problem but this set of products appeared, for a reasonable but slightly higher price, this might do very well. That’s because everyone wants to save time and no one likes to wait around. Of course, if these 5-minute machines each cost $5,000, then your market would be seriously limited. The average person is not willing to pay that much for that convenience.

They value their money more than that convenience — even if you could logically prove that they’d save so much time that it would be worth far more than the extra cost.

It might be true, but it’s a potential, future, “maybe” benefit as opposed to keeping much more cash in their pockets today.

This is why you won’t beat Oracle by offering a relational database that’s 10% faster. You won’t beat Microsoft by making a slightly less unwieldy version of Office. And that’s why, when you pitch a marginal improvement to an already-existing product or service, no one will be interested.

FIX IT. This is really more about psychology.

You can’t become so wrapped up in the greatness of your own product that you fail to consider whether it’s really changing anything, whether anyone else will give a damn at all. That’s a harsh statement. And you need to be harsh with yourself.

You need advisors and co-founders who are equally realistic, street-smart and harsh. You have to ask: Why is someone going to abandon what they’re doing in order to go with you? And if there isn’t a clear, compelling answer for large numbers of potential customers, then you are going to have seriously reconsider what you’re pitching.

5. Not immediately grabbing and holding your audience’s attention

No one cares about you or your company unless they know what major problem you’ve solved or what groundbreaking discovery you’ve made.

Once your audience acknowledges how serious a problem is, then you have to tell them right away exactly what your solution is. Not the architecture or components. Those will come later.

Rather, how will your customers’ lives change immediately because now they have your product/service — when just the day before they didn’t? If you can’t answer this, there is absolutely no reason to fund you. But if you can, then there may be a reason to fund you — if you can contrast this with far inferior and weaker competitive solutions.

Why “may”? Because you still have to ask if it will be easy for your target audience to acquire what you’re selling. Is the price affordable? Can they download it? Order it online? Or do they need to travel to Madagascar to get it? When you exclude convenience as a criterion, then you have to assume that people will do everything in their power to find/purchase/use your product. Unless you have a real cure for cancer, that’s unlikely.

What does this all have to do with grabbing your audience’s attention? Nothing. But it has everything to do with keeping it. Investors can say: real problem, real solution. Now: make me believe that people can easily buy/use this without sacrificing convenience.

FIX IT. You have a proposition that’s absolutely believable and workable. So what’s left? A lot. But it all flows from what’s gone before. You have to give some details about how the product works, how it will be distributed/manufactured/downloaded, how you’ll market it, what the go-to-market strategy is, and who’s on your team. Last but not least, you’ve got to have pro formas. All of those will get attention but only after they’re sold on your idea. Too many start with those, so even a great idea gets lost because everyone’s fallen asleep.

What’s your yellow boxfish?

Street-Smart Pitch Decks: The 5 Keys

Tell a story

Focus. Think of being stranded on a life raft. You’re only going to keep what you need to survive. Same here.

Write readable slides that anyone can grasp in a couple of seconds.

Solve real problems. Don’t be Don Quixote.

“Hit ’em between the eyes” — if you don’t get your audience’s attention right away, you’ve lost it forever.

One thing I didn’t cover here — but which I will post next month — is my “Slide Title Secret.” Slide titles are far more important than most think. And I’ve developed a foolproof test to determine if yours are right — or completely off-base. If you’d like to learn this now, just drop me a note and I’ll send my draft to you right away.

If your pitch deck isn’t getting the result you want or you just can’t get it finished or right. I can review, vet and transform it — quickly. I’ve been involved directly in capital raises from just six figures to $31 million and I’ve helped scores of founders. Contact me now on LinkedIn or Twitter or email: steven “at” thebrandmason “dot” com.

Credits. Story Photo: We Are Human London via Visual hunt / CC BY-SA; Rube Goldberg machine: freshwater2006 via Visualhunt / CC BY-NC; yellow boxfish: zsispeo via Visual hunt / CC BY-SA