We Need to Talk About Your Pitch Deck

Oct. 7, 2020
Otto Pohl
This is an intervention, in the friendliest possible way. If your pitch deck even vaguely resembles the dozens of pitch decks I’ve reviewed in recent weeks, there’s work to do.

There are hundreds of articles on the web outlining the optimal pitch deck, often mandating specific pages and order. Instead of helping, I think the surfeit of proscriptive advice is part of the problem — you can only read so many conflicting “definitive” guides before you end up terminally confused.

Let’s take a step back. There are only two things a pitch deck has to do:

1. Make the audience fall in love with the opportunity

2. Convince the audience that you are the best team to successfully execute against that opportunity.

Simple — but simple doesn’t mean easy. Achieving both of those goals within a few pages is hard, and given the heterogeneity of founders, opportunities, and stages of development, broad guidance is the only valuable guidance.

I’ve summed up my philosophy in what I call the “Anna Karenina Rule of Pitch Decks.” In the opening line of Anna Karenina, Tolstoy writes “All happy families are alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” I propose the inverse for pitch decks: Every successful pitch deck is unique; unsuccessful ones are all alike.

A professional investor hears hundreds of pitches a year and rejects almost all of them. They meet with you ready to say “no” and only grudgingly shift to a “maybe” or even a “yes” if they simply can’t find a reason to walk away. Those are the special, unique deals that they can’t wait to present to their investment committee. If you lose them at any point you’ll end up in the big, undifferentiated mass of rejected pitches.

Here are my guiding principles:

1. A pitch is a conversation where only one side is talking out loud. Just because you have the floor doesn’t mean that the audience isn’t carrying on a dialogue with you. Perfection is when each slide you put up nails the next question forming in their minds. Some examples:

a. Start right: Meet the audience where they are. If you use acronyms they don’t know or assume knowledge they don’t have, their first (unspoken) dialogue with you is “huh? What’s going on?” And on a very human level, the investor is probably starting the meeting thinking about something else (lunch, spouse, the next meeting). You need to have something at the top that stops them in their tracks and think, “OK, you’ve got my attention.”

b. Problem statement. I’ve seen decks that start with great detail about how, for example, depression/cancer/climate change is a big problem, quantifying it in a number of ways over several pages. The audience dialogue is likely, “Well duh, I get that…but what do you want to do about it?”

c. The assumption of success. It’s not hard to conceive of ways the world would be a better place. So if your business models depends on virality, mass adoption, or your ability to change how the US healthcare system works, the natural immediate response is “That sounds great, but why should I think you can get to sufficient scale?” Answer that question immediately.

If you put yourself in the audience’s shoes as you go through the deck, it will help you craft the optimal path through your story.

2. The challenge of Everything-Needs-To-Be-First. One of the abiding issues of a good pitch deck is that you often feel the need to explain everything first in order to explain everything else. To help untangle that mess into a linear story, you have to find facts or statements that make sufficient sense on their own to buy you some time with the audience while you explain other aspects of your story. Leverage common knowledge. For example, an analogy like “we’re like a credit bureau for online reputation” allows the audience to fill in the blanks with things they already know about, even if the audience understands by the end of the pitch that the analogy is substantially imperfect. You’ve given the audience enough of a framework to keep their interest as you fill in the details.

3. Simple and Succinct. One of the most important messages you’re sending in your pitch is that you are a clear-eyed leader who can distinguish critical issues from distractions. So once you’ve mapped out your story, make sure you’ve stripped away everything but the most important points, and hammer those home, one per slide.

4. Relentlessly feature your strengths. This is where the Anna Karenina rule comes in. Are you a science company with a Nobel prize winner on the founding team? That should probably go near the top. Got impressive traction statistics or pilot projects? Great partners? Some other “unfair” advantage that makes the potential investor feel it’s their lucky day they took the meeting? Remember, you’ve got two jobs to do with the deck: make them fall in love with the opportunity, and with your team. The order in which you tell those two stories depends largely on the strengths you bring to the table.

5. Traction talks and bullshit walks. This is really the same point as the previous one, but it’s so important it’s worth reiterating. Anything you can do to show that you’ve already validated your assumptions, found customers, identified product-market fit, or have satisfied, paying customers should be showcased. Don’t bury the lede, as journalists say.

Once we’ve found the optimal story and built a great deck, I always encourage founders to be prepared to ditch the whole thing. Don’t be a push-the-button-and-hear-the-pitch robot. A pitch is the opening dance to a hopefully long relationship with an investor. They’re people. The shortest distance between two people is a story — be prepared to tell that story in a casual, heart-to-heart conversation.

A few other points to consider:

1. Jaws before Speargun. In almost all circumstances, introduce the problem before you talk about your solution. The most common exception here is a science startup where the problem — e.g. cancer, atmospheric carbon, or plastic waste — is so universally understood that you can lead with your solution. You obviously still need to quantify your effect on the problem, or even what part of the problem you can tackle.

2. COVID. Yes it’s huge, but it will also end. If your business is affected by the pandemic, make a clear case how you will thrive both during and after.

3. Unified founder portraits. Especially in this day of remote everything, having professional photos taken with the same style/lighting/backdrop sends a message that you’re actually a real team.

4. Founder story. If you’ve got a great motivation for building this business, tell us.

5. Leave out the deal points. And no editorializing. I’ve seen decks declaring that “We’re the next unicorn startup” or defining the company valuation and the equity repurchase rights the founders want to retain. Leave all of that out.

6. Up-And-To-The-Right financial projections are a cliché, but those graphs are still often a valuable part of a deck. But be careful — you need to sufficiently justify how you will create and capture those economics. To a substantial degree, every investor will discount the UATTR graph no matter what. But if you simply draw a jaunty hockey stick showing the millions pouring in without meaningful justification, it will simply look like wishful thinking.

7. Spelling. Please! You’re selling yourself as a detail-oriented person, right?

8. Take reasons for a “no” with a grain of salt. Occasionally investors who decline to invest will give you insightful advice. Usually, though, they just say the first thing that comes to their mind, which is probably the same thing they said to the last ten founders who walked through the door. “I would like to see more traction” is perhaps the most tired justification out there. Because sure, and I’d like to see who wins the Super Bowl before I place my bet. The only important message is that you lost them somewhere along the way. The bottom line is that they didn’t buy the opportunity or your ability to execute against it. It might be time to rework the deck.

See? Easy, right? Now get back into that deck and send me the next draft.