I see a lot of pitch decks. Hundreds per year. Almost every one is wrong. Not the startup idea. Not the slide layout. Not the facts per se. But which facts and in what order. Nearly all founders use a structure guaranteed to kill their “conversion rate”.
The common flaw stems from a fundamental mismatch in the way our brains create versus consume content. Each engages a different forms of reasoning. I studied this general topic in graduate school under one of the pioneers in the field. I kept up with the literature over the years. And I observed a huge number of pitches. But it still took me years to realize what was happening (repeating the same mistake in my own pitches, of course). Once I did, I couldn’t help appreciating the ironic beauty of the situation.
First, some background in cognitive psychology. Your brain has two completely different reasoning systems. System 1 is the fast, associative pattern-matching module—good for sitting in the background while you walk the plains and then rapidly determining whether a rustle in the bushes signifies mortal danger or a tasty dinner. System 2 is the slow, logical alternative-weighing module—good for deliberately figuring out whether it’s best to make camp by the river or on the hill. (If you want the full general audience explanation of System 1 and System 2, read Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Khaneman, who was the partner of my late professor, Amos Tversky.)
Now, when you build a pitch deck, you have to call on System 2 to develop the content. System 2 is logical so you can’t help but try to construct a deductive proof of why someone should invest in your company. That’s why most pitches have 3-7 slides setting the stage: here’s the problem, here’s the size of the problem, here are the current solutions, here are the drawbacks of current solutions, here are the requirements for a better solution…” I refer to this pattern as “In the Beginning”.
However, when investors consume that pitch deck, either at Demo Day, in an email, or face-to-face, they call on System 1. For most people in most situations, System 1 is the default. System 2 takes much more energy and operates much more slowly, so it only gets called on when something special happens. Thus, unless your pitch quickly triggers investors’ System 1s to recognize your company as a tasty dinner, their System 2s will never wake up and no amount of logic can help you. And then when you use your System 2 to try and improve your pitch, you’ll be blind to the problem.
You may be wondering why none of your advisers notice this problem when they reviewed your deck or watched a practice pitch? Here’s another ironic bit. People who sincerely want to help with your pitch will expend the effort to use System 2, also blinding them to the lack of System 1 appeal.
Perhaps the worst case of “In the Beginning” I’ve seen was at a pitch event several years ago with a brutal schedule of 12 fifteen-minute slots. A company in the last hour really started at the beginning: the last generation of technology, quotes on recent shortcomings of that generation, market sizing for the next generation, the founders’ previous experience designing this type of system, technical architecture of their new solution, and performance metrics versus the primary incumbent. Logical, but not engaging. Ran over his time and had to rush through the last slide, which was something along the lines of logos for 5 blue chip enterprise customers, an average annual contract value of $60K/year, and current $MRR of $35K/month with 20% MoM growth for 6 months.
WTF? By the time that slide flashed on the screen, 80% of the audience members were fiddling with their cellphones or chatting with their neighbors. Talk about a missed opportunity! Better to just show that last slide, drop the mike, and walk off the stage!
Luckily, identifying the problem suggests an obvious solution—focus on triggering System 1 to flag you as interesting. So without further ado, here’s Kevin’s “Hey, tasty dinner right here!” pitch template:
- Title Slide
- Context Slide: super high-level explanation of what you do, 5 bullets max
- BOOM! Slide: the most impressive thing about your company
- Ask Slide: what the next BOOM will be and what you need to get there
- Why Slides: details on how you made the first boom happen and why you’ll make the next boom happen too
Putting the Ask right after the Boom is key. The Boom triggers alertness and primes for action. Then you’ve got to give the investors something to pursue. Otherwise, you may lose their interest. Also, telling them about good stuff that will happen in the future right after good stuff that has already happened in the past naturally gives your good-stuff-forecast more credibility. Your investment ask will seem maximally reasonable at this point.
You may wonder why you need the Why slides at all? Well, once you wake up System 2, it needs to eat too. But keep the Why section as small as possible. The more facts you present, the more chance that System 2 will find a strong objection and dismiss you so it can go back to sleep—remember, System 2 requires a lot of energy. The goal is to just satisfy System 2 and get to the next step in the process. where you can bring other cognitive mechanisms into action. Oh, and when delivering the Why, keep referring back to the Boom as much as possible to maintain alertness. For example: “[Supporting Evidence]… which is why X customer loves us so much and is paying us so much money.”
My guess is that most founders’ pitch decks already contains 80%+ of this content. It’s just in the wrong order and probably too much detail on Context and Why. The big question you probably have is, “What should my Boom be?” Sorry, no blanket advice here. It’s situation dependent. But guess what? By simplifying the problem to one question, we’ve made it amenable to A/B testing. If your Boom isn’t obvious, generate 3-7 alternatives and test them against several investors each. Also, if you can’t come up with a decent Boom, it might be a signal that you haven’t made enough progress to fundraise with much success. So your near term goal becomes to make something Boom-worthy happen.
That’s my preliminary diagnosis and treatment. I’ve given this advice face-to-face to many startups over the past two years and have received a lot of positive feedback. But it’s an inherently limited sample. So if you read this post, try out the approach, and learn anything interesting (positive or negative), please drop me a line and let me know! Maybe someday we’ll be able to develop a thoroughly researched system of Evidence Based Pitching (EBP).