5 Common pitch deck mistakes

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Pitch Deck advice
Perth-entrepreneur, investor and author Charlie Caruso gives her advice on pitch decks. Image - Canva/Charlie Caruso

One of the many characteristics I admire in startup founders is their extraordinary dedication and passion for the problem they aim to solve and their commitment to the solution they’ve conceived to address it.

Without this dedication, they’d never take the giant leap of faith required to pursue their startup vision and slog away for months and sometimes years, without any safety nets or assurances that the time, energy and money (and risks!) they and their family take will pay off.

This level of emotional, mental, physical and financial commitment is a critical ingredient to convert a good idea into a successful venture – but it can (and often does) lead to blindspots when attempting to convince investors to back you in the venture you care so deeply about.

In my time working with startups, being one myself and helping a broad range of ventures develop their investment pitches, I’ve noticed some consistent mistakes founders make in their pitch decks, often caused by blindspots caused by the very dedication necessary for success.

1. Too much focus on the problem

Try to explain the problem you are solving in one (maximum two) slides, and if possible, try to communicate it visually.

Always aim to be succinct. Anyone can copy and paste reports and cite figures; the key to a powerful deck is the skill of selecting the data or communicating the key message with as few words as possible. The ability to synthesize complex problems in one slide is a skill widely admired in business, so it’s worthwhile investing the time to pack a succinct punch.

I usually list all the facts, data and thoughts I have on ‘the problem’ in order of priority, cull everything but the top 5, and then attempt to summarise the problem visually. Furthermore I recommend focussing on one industry or stakeholder problem (not several) your venture aims to solve – allows the person you’re pitching to elaborate or imagine how your solution could be scaled to solve additional problems.

2. All-in-one deck

It is important to first qualify what you want or expect the deck to achieve. So many founders expect way too much from the deck, or expect the deck to achieve all communication goals for all audiences.

A really common mistake is to use one deck for all early stage venture communications.

While there is no harm in having a central deck template for design and message consistency – founders should get comfortable in re-evaluating the narrative in their decks regularly to cater for changes in audience, in deck call to actions (CTAs) and changes in the venture’s lifecycle. Sometimes the variation is subtle, slight tweaks to one or two pages, but often what is missed is the process of re-evaluating these key questions for every communication, for every deck or new pitch;

 1) who is audience?

 2) what does this audience already know (avoid)?

 3) what do I want the audience to do after reading this deck (CTA)?

 4) what assurances or information will the audience need from this deck to achieve (3)?

The kind of decks I help founders develop often fall into one of two categories:

1)  pitch primers (often emailed ahead of in-person delivery)

2) delivery decks (aids to a pitch delivered in-person)

The goal of primer decks is to generate enough interest with the stakeholder/investor to secure an in-person (or over-Zoom) pitch session. As such pitch primers should be succinct, not give too much information away, but reveal enough to peak interest and engage further. Primer decks usually cover the problem, the market size, a very high level summary of the solution and the founders contact details.

The goal of delivery decks is to provide a visual aid and a document that can be later viewed by the investor once you leave. So many founders forget the delivery deck is an aid. Throughout the pitch the investor is appraising your knowledge of the problem and solution, market, risk profile, etc and if you rely too heavily on the deck, it will be noticed.

Investors are more likely to be impressed by a delivery from the heart with a deck that can be referred to when needed. A strong deck is a powerful aid, but when over-relied upon, it can undermine your authority in the room when you are pitching your venture to potential investors.

3. Avoiding risks

Best to get comfortable talking about what could go wrong. Whether you want to think about this or not, your investors will – and will expect you to – identify the risks they see ahead.

Another really common mistake I see founders of early-stage ventures make, is not thinking about the risks from the perspective of the investor.

When investors appraise any venture proposal they will be asking themselves; can I trust this person with my money to navigate the risks and pull this off?

Avoiding or minimising the risks to your venture in your deck or presentation is not a smart move. My advice is to think them through thoroughly, identify them and come up with a plan to minimise them. You don’t need to put the risk minimisation strategies in the deck, but you should certainly identify them either verbally or somewhere in the deck to demonstrate you understand what could go wrong.

4. Overreach

Investors are often more excited if the potential value of your venture is implicit rather than explicit. I recommend avoiding overreach in your claims and predictions – stick to the goals you can deliver.

One of the easiest ways to send red flag alerts to investors is to make ambiguous, ill-founded or over-optimistic claims or predictions about the potential of your venture.

If you tell me in your first pitch that you will disrupt the entire sector with your app, you might just find my eyes roll back. These sales pitches might make you feel inspired, but they certainly don’t inspire my confidence that you have achievable goals on your horizon. If you know your venture has potential, let the investor come to that conclusion themselves, just focus on what you have, what you plan to deliver with the capital and the runway the investment will give you. 

5. Horse-focused deck

A well-cited investment maxim is that investors back the ‘jockey not the horse.’ It’s a maxim for a reason.

So many decks overly focus on the technology and solution and too little on the team’s ability to deliver it.

Throughout your pitch delivery (both in person, and aided by your deck) you need to demonstrate you and your team have what it takes to convert your idea or prototype solution into a successful venture. The team slide provides an important opportunity to showcase your team’s experience, skill sets and the projects you have all worked on.

But remember, the real demonstration of your team’s capability is in the delivery, the way your team responds to questions or challenges, rather than in what is said on the deck.

Another tip is, there is value in identifying any skill or expertise gaps in your team, and to do this you can add an icon in place of a headshot next to the title “future team member” that highlights your intention to fill this gap in the future. Who knows, the person you pitch to just might know the right person to connect you with, and if not, at least you have demonstrated the ability to identify and resolve knowledge or skills gaps.

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For more on pitch decks read this on the primer deck, and this on the full deck.

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Investor, pitch, marketing and business development consultant - I gravitate towards challenges that require me to simplify the complex or misunderstood, and I am often recognised for my ability to find clarity in chaos. I am a communicator at heart and continue to master the art of cut-through. Talk to me about: blockchain technology, value engineering, enterprise architecture, innovation, politics, agile co-design, public policy, international policy, business strategy, corporate communications, stakeholder engagement, change management, leadership, good ideas & how to solve complex problems Engage me to help with: mentoring, board & advisory committee roles, keynote speaking, DD reports, investment advice, commercialisation, strategy design, pitch/presentations, value engineering, enterprise architecture and agile co-design.