Scrap the pitch deck template

I recently met a founder who was tearing his hair out after a string of unsuccessful meetings with investors. For privacy, I’ll call him Jim.

“They’re not getting it,” he told me. “The opportunity is so [bleep]-ing obvious and I can’t make them see it.”

Jim was trying to raise seed investment for his startup, a job assistance app for the hourly workforce. Already a successful Founder & CEO in the staffing space, he had a solution for the unique problems facing the hourly workforce like high turnover and expensive commutes.

When he talked about the potential impact of his product on the lives of millions, Jim paced the room like a Jaguar. He could barely contain the energy of his vision.

And yet, investors weren’t getting it.

When Jim shared his pitch deck with me, I saw a version of the template you see everywhere: 13 slides total, executive summary slide, problem slide, solution slide, etc.

Specifically, his problem slide had a bullet list of statistics from the US Department of Labor.

It was no reflection of the passionate, purpose-driven founder before me. Because there’s no slide for that in most pitch deck templates.

Fill-in-the-blank skips over the magic in your story

The problem I have with pitch deck templates — or most templates for that matter — is they’re geared towards filling in the blanks, rather than finding a unique, creative way to present your story.

They promise a way to skip a painful step. (That’s why they make great content.) But they rarely deliver on that promise. Seriously, when was the last time you achieved something big with a template?

When you start with a pitch deck template, you’re trying to cram your entire story into 13 slides before you’ve figured out what your story is.

A template also assumes you have the pieces — problem, secret sauce, financials, etc — lying around like puzzle pieces. Just pop ’em into place and — voila! — a great pitch deck.

If you’ve tried to write your own executive summary slide, you know it’s anything but an instant voila! to summarize your idea. It can be hard to articulate, even though the idea is yours.

So forget the rules and that amazing AirBnB pitch deck that made it look so easy. Instead, start thinking about how you can capture people’s imagination with your idea. As the founder, no one can do this quite like you.

Find your story first; worry about the slide later

When I help founders with their pitch, I always start with their personal story. How did they come up with their idea? Why does it matter? What makes them get goosebumps about their vision for the future?

These stories can be an interesting way to bring your core strategy to life.

Back to Jim. His problem slide showed market opportunity through indisputable facts and figures from the US Department of Labor. But that’s not how he came up with his idea.

Jim came up with his idea while watching 2 of his 4 adult children struggle as hourly workers. They couldn’t keep a job for more than 6 months. They couldn’t get enough shifts each week. They spent all their take-home pay on long commutes.

In stark contrast were Jim’s other 2 kids: high-paid salaried employees who didn’t struggle with any of that stuff.

“My kids are like a snapshot of the US workforce. 50% of people are like my 2 kids struggling to make it work with hourly jobs. And there’s no one trying to solve these problems,” said Jim.

THAT was his story — unique, personal and real. You could call it his “why”.

So Jim threw out the slide with the dry stats and went off-template.

His new slide featured a huge photo of his four 20-something kids, arms slung over each other’s shoulders and smiling. They looked the same…but they weren’t, if you read the stats beneath each person: annual salary, number of jobs held that year, homeowner status, commute times.

The difference was night and day between his salaried and hourly employed kids.

At the top of the slide, Jim wrote: “Why me?”

It became the 3rd slide in his deck. And it started to change the course of his meetings.

3 weeks later, Jim was thrilled to report that people were writing checks. Bigger investors were telling him to keep them in mind when he got to Series A. Things were finally breaking loose.

You can’t take Jim’s template but you can swipe what he learned:

Numbers are more abstract than stories (even for investors)

The beginning of your pitch should immediately capture your audience’s attention. Jim had a great photo with a great story. When he showed that slide, he could tell the people in the room were actually listening.

The photo works because, honestly, who wants to stare at slide after slide of words? Talk to a picture and free things up.

And the story worked because stories make us care — it’s scientific fact.

A story makes an emotional connection

Jim’s investors didn’t know as much about the staffing market as he did, but they’re probably parents of kids who had hourly jobs at one point. Jim opened a unique opportunity to connect with shared experiences and emotions.

Yes, investors are busy and they need certain information. But they’re people too, and you should connect with them on that level if you can.

I met another founder who was creating a way to make it easier to find dance classes in any local area. She was in a meeting with an older, male investor and assumed he didn’t know anything about dance. So she worked overtime trying to impress him with stats and figures. When she finished, he told her that he and his wife had been looking for a salsa class in their local area and had encountered the very problem she was looking to solve.

A shared experience will always be more powerful than a number. We all seek to connect with one another. Create an opportunity for that to happen.

Sell yourself as a founder

At first, Jim resisted the idea of sharing his personal story. He wasn’t a fan of talking about himself and preferred to keep his personal and professional worlds separate.

But when you’re the founder of an early stage startup, you ARE the business. Your vision and unique perspective on the opportunity is what you’re asking people to invest in. Show why you’re the one to do it.

In Jim’s case, he had deep experience building technology companies in staffing and he saw a unique opportunity through his own children’s struggles.

Whether you plan to pitch yourself or not, I coach all my founders to figure out their “why me” story to put in their back pocket.

Because it takes a lot of cajones to get out there and make a startup happen. When you inevitably feel your confidence falter, you have a mantra as to why you’re the one to pull this off.

A good pitch starts a conversation

It’s worth remembering that your pitch deck isn’t your one shot at getting the check. It’s a conversation starter, a ticket to the next meeting. You want to create interest.

Of course, you need a solid idea, a sizeable market, traction, etc — I don’t mean to diminish the importance of representing the business opportunity with clarity.

But if you can introduce those facts with a good story, you’re bound to get people interested, waaaaay faster. And that’ll save you more time than any online template : )

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