Don’t let your slide deck lead you, when you should lead your slide deck
by Alan Jones
Sometimes, your own impostor syndrome makes you want to hide behind a slide deck that is as great as you can possibly make it. You don’t want to lead this pitch today! Not when you don’t feel ready to lead a large, successful business yet. So, you’ll make your pitch deck as great as you possibly can.
Which would be great if investors made their investment decisions based on how much they liked your pitch deck, but that’s not the case. In more than a decade of investing in startups, I’ve never once seen an investor decide to invest based on the design, quality, quantity of information, business model or technology demo featured in the pitch deck.
At the early stage of a startup’s life, if you’re meeting an investor, they’re spending most of the time trying to decide whether they think you’re someone capable of learning how to run a hundred million dollar company one day. That means they mostly want to focus their attention on you, the founder (or founding team). Everything your pitch deck does to focus the investor’s attention on the deck instead of you, is hurting your chances of being successful.
So look at your deck with a fresh perspective: what can you do to make each slide in your pitch deck easier to rapidly understand?
Is there too much reading in your pitch deck? An investor can either read what the slide says, or listen to what you say — they can’t do both simultaneously, and they will lose some of either what you say, or what they read, if you make them try. So try to keep the words on each slide to a maximum of three bullet points and a maximum of 20 words per point (but the ideal number is zero bullet points and zero words).
Do you have headings on each slide? The problem with headings is founders tend to ‘lean’ on them, like someone with a sore foot does with a crutch. When you lean on your headings, you’re likely to read the heading to the slide, and when you do that, your audience will see that you’re reading from your slides, and they will start reading your slides too, as that will help them reduce the cognitive load of trying to pay attention to both you, and your slides. The moment your audience starts reading your slides, they stop paying attention to you, and you may as well have just sent them a PDF of your pitch deck.
But removing bullet points and words from your slides is only the beginning. If you’re thinking of replacing words with diagrams and icons you’ve sourced from the PowerPoint clip art collection, think again!
A picture is worth a thousand words, but not all pictures were created equal. A screenshot or photograph of your product or service in action is almost always easier for your audience to quickly grasp the high-level purpose than a detailed flowchart or functional diagram full of arrows and boxes and overlapping paths.
Just like words, diagrams and clip art icons take cognitive processing to comprehend. So if you need to use a diagram, make it a simple one, make it largely symbolic rather than literal, and if you need to be complicated, use a slide build or a series of slides so that each individual slide can be rapidly comprehended so your audience can return their attention to you.
Go through your slide deck looking for those inevitable and unnecessary clip art icons of heads-and-shoulders, phones, numeric keypads, ticks and checkboxes — alone, they don’t amount to much, but a few dozen across a 15 slide pitch deck is just additional time when your audience’s brains are wasting understanding what each icon is meant to represent, when they should have their focus trained on you.
When you do use words in a pitch deck, make sure your formatting doesn’t make comprehension harder for your audience. Left-justified text is easier to read than centre, right, or fully-justified text. Upper-and-lower-case text is faster to skim read than either all-upper-case or the always-hip all-lower-case style.
Making almost every second word in a paragraph bold for added emphasis is highly addictive but actually just makes what you’ve written much, much harder to comprehend as your audience has to wonder what the bold formatting actually signifies, which is time they should be spending focused on you. As an investor myself I personally hate that almost more than the dreaded incorrect use of the possessive apostrophe, which should be a criminal offence carrying weighty minimum sentence with no chance for parole.