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The Street-Smart Pitch Deck: 5 Secrets You Need to Know
posted Aug 15 by Steven Mason

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. So most pitch decks fail. Here’s why:

1. They don't tell a story.

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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 how you're marketing's going to work because you're going to "embrace social media, leverage partner contacts, speak at major industry events," you’re not saying anything.

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?
  • Could the listener explain in her own words what you're trying to do and why?
  • 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?

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

Steve Jobs didn't simultaneously invent personal computers and smartphones and iPods and he wouldn't have even if could have.

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

  • Acquire 100% market share in a year (probably ever).
  • Launch 10 different versions of a product or 10 different pricing mechanisms.
  • Immediately dominate the US, Europe and Asia.
  • Succeed when your margins are zero or negative
  • Immediately be featured in the NYT, WSJ,Wired and TechCrunch. 

FIX IT. 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, kill all 10.

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?

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? Are the fonts illegible?

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. Phrases or a few words instead of long sentences. Graphics that people understand, not Rorschach blots to be interpreted. 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. And do the same thing with slides.  

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

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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?

Now suppose you could wash your clothes in 90 seconds. Is that a benefit? Not really. Because it still takes time to dry them. But suppose there were a 5-minute clothes washer and a 5-minute clothes dryer. 

This is why you won't beat Oracle by offering a relational database that's 10% faster. And why you can’t pitch a marginal improvement to an already-existing product or service.

FIX IT. This is really more about psychology.

Don’t become so wrapped up in the greatness of your own product that you fail to consider whether it's really changing anything.

You must always ask: Why is someone going to abandon what they're doing in order to go with you?

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

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

Ask: 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, that may be a reason to fund you.

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?

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.

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