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A startup’s pitch deck should be a simple affair to create. There’s any number of blogs stating how to do it and giving suggestions for a tried-and-tested structure. A good pitch-deck is somewhere in the order of a dozen-or-so slides, so it’s not big.

Everything written about a good pitch-deck says the charts need to be pretty simple. This isn’t an exercise in demonstrating cleverness with words or graphics. Just read some examples of successful decks — simplicity is a common theme.

And yet…creating a good pitch-deck turns out to be more difficult than you might think.

Most of us have a tendency for hazy thinking, over-complication and “yes, but there’s another nuance you need to understand” additions. I need to really focus to get the needed clarity of thought and I’m sure I’m not alone.

Virtually every powerpoint presentation I ever had the displeasure to view in my corporate life was a million miles away from the clarity of a good pitch-deck. So, it’s perhaps not surprising that doing this well isn’t so easy.

“Simple can be harder than complex: You have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple. But it’s worth it in the end because once you get there, you can move mountains.” Steve Jobs

We’ve recently completed the first good version of my startup’s pitch-deck. It was hard to do, but we feel pretty proud of the result. I thought it might be useful to share some key experiences from the process, because it wasn’t easy. I won’t advise on what should be in such a deck, because that’s already well covered elsewhere. Instead, I’ll provide some experiences and hints along the way that I didn’t find so well documented.

Not many people know this exists, but Apple’s Keynote has an incredibly bad-ass collaboration feature. Invite team members to collaborate and you can see each-others edits in real-time. You even get to see the things your colleagues are changing right now, with their name against the highlighted object they’re changing.

An open Skype call, with Keynote collaboration, basically means you can work together without being in the same place. This feature alone is reason to use Keynote over Powerpoint, it’s that good.

It’s surprising how much we often assume our audience knows. We’re too close to our story, our problem, our solution. So designing the pitch to be read by a 5-year-old forces a clarity of thinking that’s necessary. Of course I exaggerate to make the point — but only a little. It’s not that our audience is stupid, it’s that we’re stupid if we can’t say it in a way that a 5 year-old can understand.

Sometimes, when I know a lot about a subject, I feel the need to educate others. So the early versions of our pitch deck had some charts that addressed the perceived audience problem we had: “most people don’t really know what an AI bot is, we need to explain how they work”. This was a mistake — I watched the confused expressions on the faces of our initial target audiences. We were trying to educate people who really didn’t want to be educated — they wanted our pitch to be simpler.

Rather than trying to educate people about our solution, we needed to instead focus more on the customer service problem we were trying to solve. It turned out that once we were clear on the problem, people “got” the solution much easier and without having to know so much of the detail. So if you find yourself having to educate, maybe you instead need to focus on your problem statement a bit more.

I’ve lost count of the number of edits I made that I felt were good…only to find myself thinking the edit was completely useless the next morning. Sometimes I can’t see the wood for the trees. When inspiration is waning, leaving things and coming back when refreshed can bring a surprisingly fresh (and needed) perspective.

There are many off-the-shelf pitch-deck templates and they’ll do the job. Only they didn’t tell our story. You probably have something unique you need to get across. For us it was the strength of our team, our track-record and experience of working together. Our pitch-deck varies from the standard to tell this part of our story. It’s unique, it’s ours and it tells our story. Investors see a lot of pitch-decks, and whilst I’m not an investor, it seems to me that getting across our uniqueness and strengths is a big part of the battle.

Here’s a funny thing. I felt that the chart design was something I could apply later. First I needed to concentrate on the messages. Once I had that sorted, I’d worry about the colours. Sound logical?

Guess what? It was only once I decided to add the design that I could get the words right. A good design will give structure to your content. For example, my design makes judicious use of pale boxes with a bolder headline. This gives space for some explanatory text, but the headline gives the overall message for those just glancing. Without this design I wasn’t forced to clarify my message in order to separate out heading from explanation.

There’s a myriad of other examples for how my design forced me to think about the message. Once I had the design, I was 500% more productive in clarifying the message.

My conclusion? Design isn’t just colours and fonts; it’s how you tell your story. So, get your design early.

Speaking of design, I made many rough edits of our deck with the words I felt told the story. But they all seemed a little empty. It wasn’t until I augmented those words with images that the point stood out. I’m a fan of full-page photographs to get a point across. Their judicious use can be really helpful. For a pitch-deck I wouldn’t go all “designery” and make all my charts images, but a few in the right places can be helpful.

There’s lots of sites offering royalty-free images. Doing an advanced search on Flickr for images with a Creative Commons licence is one source. Some other sites with royalty-free images I like include:

deathtothestockphoto.com

https://unsplash.com

http://startupstockphotos.com

Here’s a nice trick. Find a good photograph that coveys the essence of your message. Then add a semi-transparent black box over it to darken it and add your words in white text. Tadda! Your image is there, but the words stand-out. Using this technique it’s pretty impossible not to have something that looks super-professional.

Another graphical trick I like, is to have icons to summarise ideas and points. Font Awesome is a great resource of such icons, but it’s designed for web developers.

This site provides a neat way to resize, colour and generate PNGs for your chosen Font Awesome icons:

http://fa2png.io

I was too close to our deck to be able to see it’s faults.

And most of my friends were too polite to tell me what they really thought. Or perhaps their thinking wasn’t critical enough. Either way, their feedback wasn’t terribly helpful.

It was only when we found someone willing to be brutally honest with us, that we got to the bottom of what we needed to do. That feedback was invaluable.

We needed to find someone who wasn’t close to either the story or us, and who could be brutally honest. Finding that person was perhaps our most important activity. I suggest you find that person as well.

When you’ve finished your charts, generate a PDF for onward distribution to others. I never distribute anything other than a PDF; ever since a friend told me of a vendor who’d submitted a Word proposal and they could see all the edits they’d made to it, by viewing the change history. A PDF is a like a digital print. You wouldn’t distribute your negatives, so why distribute the original source file?

Eclectic tastes, amateur at most things. Learning how to build a new startup. Former CTO for IBM Watson Europe.

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