Two Hidden Reasons Pitch Decks Fail to Deliver

You need a mountain not a kite (4) (1)

Every piece of external communication you produce serves as an ambassador for your startup, from a short email confirming a meeting to grant applications and social media posts. Among all these delegates you send out into the world to convey your value proposition, the pitch deck bears an overwhelming burden.

We tend to expect a pitch deck to accomplish amazing things. We assume that, in just a dozen or so slides, it will intrigue the audience, argue a complete business case, outline a comprehensive plan for growth, and convince the audience to sign over a significant sum of money.

That’s a lot to deliver, so it’s no wonder when a deck fails to meet such inflated expectations. If your pitch deck isn’t performing the way you think it should, then it’s probably time to reset both your expectations and the process you’ve been using to build your presentation.

You need a mountain, not a kite

In the coaching I do with founders in tech-based and science-based companies, I notice two recurring reasons that pitch decks fail to wow investors, strategic partners, and funding agencies:

  1. The absence of a fully articulated business case to support the summary presented in the pitch
  2. A development process that short-circuits both critical and creative thinking by focusing too early on format

These factors aren’t readily visible because they don’t show up in the completed deck. But it’s obvious when they’re missing. Without the hidden foundation they form, a pitch deck comes across as a fragile, unsubstantiated dream rather than a solid bet. It creates the impression of a kite floating on a string, not a mountain standing on a firm base.

Now, I’m a big believer that the world needs more kite-fliers, visionaries and idealists who aspire to lift our eyes above the horizon of the status quo. But potential partners and funders aren’t just looking for a hit of inspiration. They’re looking for ROI.

Even when they get excited about the ideological premise of a ground-breaking innovation, investors keep one eye on their calculator. They’re not typically willing to tie their fortunes to a kite string, with just a wish and a prayer that the kite will fly.

They are, however, willing to take a calculated risk when they can see and assess evidence of a logically structured business case. When you can show that your pitch rests on a mountain of well-developed thinking, that’s when you get buy-in.

You build that mountain by creating a fully articulated, fully documented business case. But you don’t reveal the whole base of the mountain during the pitch. You show just the tip of the mountain, a summary of your most important ideas and data points, just enough to whet the audience’s appetite for more information.

A great pitch points to a great plan

Think of a pitch like a trailer for a movie. It conveys the highlights of the story, capturing the drama of the complete film in a way that grabs your attention and makes you eager to watch the whole thing.

Technically speaking, a trailer is a short film, but one would never expect it to compete for the Oscar category of Live Action Short Film. It’s not an independent artistic creation; it’s a dependent work whose meaning is tied to the full-length movie.

Imagine trying to create a trailer for a film that’s only half-finished. The script hasn’t been fully written, some of the casting is still in progress, and the director still hasn’t decided which way the ending will go. How seductive a “teaser” can you make with such sketchy material to work with?

Without a clear picture of what you’re trying to sell the audience on seeing, you can’t really design a compelling trailer. The images and audio you manage to cobble together will lack unity and depth, no matter how many special effects you include to try to impress the audience.

In the same way, if you try to create a pitch deck without first developing a substantive business case, your presentation will appear shallow. If your deck captures all your thinking to date, then you haven’t thought deeply enough. And your audience of professional skeptics (otherwise known as investors) will quickly lose interest.

The alternative, more persuasive approach is to treat your pitch as the pinnacle of your mountain of a business plan. This doesn’t mean that you should spend months creating an old-fashioned business plan, the kind that used to become obsolete before the dot-matrix ink was even dry. It simply means that you should assemble, in some rough form, the ideas and data you need to defend your business model.

You don’t need to “show your work” in a polished, predetermined form, the way your Grade 6 math teacher used to ask you to do. But you must have done the work so you can pique your audience’s interest by hinting at the muscle beneath your skeletal slides.

A great pitch should engage the audience by giving them just enough information to make them eager to ask questions. Questions start a conversation, and that’s when you get the chance to really shine. That’s when you can flesh out your ideas, provide additional data, and ask your own questions so you can learn more about your audience and start building a relationship with them.

Don’t let the lean model starve your creative process

The lean startup methodology was designed to allow founders to move swiftly, without falling prey to overpreparation or perfectionism. It was never, however, meant to replace the need for in-depth critical thinking about business landscapes and business models.

By the same token, slide presentation software evolved to allow speakers to share simple visual aids with the audience. It was never intended to substitute for forms of communication that allow for deep exploration of complex ideas.

When you combine lean startup methodology with slide presentation software, however, the results can be hazardous. It’s easy to slip into believing that lean thinking is surface thinking and that communication happens just by slapping a few bullet points and a graph onto a slide.

In reality, lean thinking requires deep thinking, but that cognitive effort is directed strategically to a few key aspects of the business plan. Similarly, slide design also calls for thoughtful, precise communication so you can pack clear meaning into as few pixels as possible.

If you focus too early on building your deck, you will hinder both your critical and creative thinking, and the result will be a formulaic presentation without a fact-based foundation.

The antidote to this common situation is to shoot the movie before you create the trailer. Start building your deck outside of whatever software you plan to use for the final presentation. Give yourself the tools and space you need to fully explore these 12 questions, which I call the Dozen for Due Diligence:

  1. Who is the audience for my pitch, and what do they care about?
  2. What is the problem I’m solving?
  3. For whom am I solving that problem?
  4. How do I know that someone will pay to solve that problem?
  5. How do I know how many customers I will attract and how much money they will be willing to spend to find a solution to their problem?
  6. What socio-economic trends show that the problem is increasing in size and urgency?
  7. What other solutions are out there?
  8. What makes my solution the best option?
  9. How will I generate revenue, and how can I trust that my model for producing revenue will work?
  10. What uncertainties and risks do I foresee? How will I handle those?
  11. How much money am I asking for? How will I spend it, and what will the results be?
  12. What’s the overall ROI for the investor? What evidence do I have to support my financial projections? What assumptions have I made, and how can I defend them?

The tools you use to probe these questions should suit your personality and the way you like to work. You might try writing out your answers in a Word document or a notebook, talking them through with your team, or drawing rough pictures in a sketchbook.

Only once you’ve generated a wealth of ideas and evidence to form your business case can you then make smart decisions about choosing the most important items for your main pitch deck. To create a trailer that puts your audience on the edge of their seats, you need an abundance of content from which to choose the most compelling bits. The other bits can become material for a rich appendix to your deck, a handout, or ready-made responses for the Q&A session.

Despite what you might have heard, there’s no magic template that will guarantee a successful pitch. In fact, committing to a template before you’ve done the deep work of developing your business model is the surest way I know to undermine your efforts.

So-called creative waste is never time wasted. When it comes to creating a high-performance pitch deck, you must be prepared to invest in exploratory, multifaceted thinking. That—not a set of slide titles or a slide theme—will give you the hidden basis you need to build a pitch that truly delivers.

Clarity Studio is developing The Ultimate Pitching Toolkit, a multimedia guide to walk founders through each step of building a persuasive pitch deck. We are looking for beta testers to review the product and give us feedback. If you’re interested in this opportunity to access free, self-paced support for your pitching, just send me a DM.


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