“Send me your deck” will be a familiar phrase to any startup founder. But how can you be certain yours will work? Claire Macmillan knows.
Claire’s background as a barrister at the Criminal bar in London taught her how to build the best story from any set of facts. Moving on to institutional equity sales at Merrill Lynch in London and New York, she saw first hand how investors react to bad pitches: “you can see them switching off,” she says. Since then, Claire’s brought the balance of crafted content and persuasive delivery to hundreds of pitches at all stages. Here she reveals why the good ones work, and the bad ones don’t.
Now is an unenviable time to find yourself looking to raise venture capital. But the bottom line is that if your business needs funding then you don’t have a lot of choice. The good news is, despite everything, the basic truths still hold.
Tell your story
“People remember stories. A pitch deck template might give you the science, but the real art to pitching is storytelling”, says Claire. The recipient will often skim through the deck first, “to get a sense of the whole story, to see if it’s interesting,” says Claire. “Then they go back through it at a slower pace.” On that basis, too much density and detail could sink your deck at first glance. “The slides need to hang together as a set, as a whole story from beginning to end, not just with chapter headings but with the actual messages you want people to take away.”
Big impressive numbers and the need to define ‘the problem’ can get in the way of simplicity and memorability. While there’s no such thing as the perfect deck per se, there is the perfect deck for you. So be friends with the ‘rules’, not slaves to them. For example…
The problem with Problems
There’s a lot of talk about starting with the problem. But sometimes it’s not a problem that you’re solving; maybe just a way of doing something better, or differently, in response to a shift in the market landscape, an evolution of technology, or a change in consumer trends.
“Don’t get hung up on the problem statement if it doesn’t work for your story, says Claire. For example, your story might start more with “what if?”, or “we’re changing the way people…”. Remember that the really pioneering companies don’t just remove problems, they create entirely new paradigms.
Yes, you do need to start with something attention grabbing that gets everyone on the same page fast. But remember that investors, like most audiences, have short attention spans, so you have to get to the point quickly. If you are going the problem route, then don’t just state it, make your listeners feel it. Bring it to life, show them the pain and give them the context. As Claire says, “they need to be nodding thinking, yeah, that needs fixing.”
Your deck’s purpose
Each element of the process serves a particular purpose. So the covering email’s purpose is to get the recipient to open your deck. The purpose of the deck is to secure a meeting, and to provide structure during that meeting. What happens next will be down to the meeting, the interaction, not the deck. In some ways this takes pressure off your deck: it does not need to say everything there could possibly be to say about your business. The deck can support you, but you need to own the pitch. You need to bring your story to life and show that you are the person, with the team, to deliver on what you’re promising.
Claire offers another perspective: each slide should set up the question the next slide is going to answer. You want your audience, whether in the room in front of you or facing a screen, to be nodding along. If each slide is answering a hanging question from the slide before, it’ll bounce along and bring your audience along with you, to the place you want them to be. You can load up your laptop with detailed appendix slides, but ditch the idea of a ‘send ahead deck’, differentiated from your pitch deck. Have just one: a single, simply-told story, that you tell over and over.
Delivery: talking with not at
Thinking of your pitch as a really well structured conversation is a good idea. It will change the way you engage with your audience. You’ll be talking with them, not at them. “They’re going to be more likely to listen, and you’ll be less likely to just plough on regardless,” says Claire. There’ll be a connection and you’ll be able to respond and adapt.
A pet peeve
Claire is not a fan of explaining what you do by reference to someone else’s business: ”We are like X (usually Airbnb, Uber or Amazon) for Y”. Very occasionally this can be a useful remark to make verbally, but on the whole, steer clear. Investors love to pigeon hole and leap to conclusions. Your business is YOUR business, it’s unique! Explain it simply, concisely, and clearly, and you won’t need the crutch of the comparison.
You cannot not mention Covid-19 in your pitch.
Whether you create a new slide or two or whether you cover it off verbally is up to you, but you need to reference upfront how Covid affects your business now and going forward. It might be that the new landscape leans into part of the problem you solve. However you do it, you need to reference the near and long term impact of Covid in the context of your business.
It’s about getting them to believe in the opportunity in the same way that you do. If your belief is strong enough (which, of course, it is) then your deck must communicate that.