Top 5 Pitch Deck Tips for Non-Designers
I'm not a graphic designer, but I've learned to make decent slides that raise money. In fact, one of the pitch decks I worked on last year was used to raise over $200 million.
Here are a few best practices that I’ve established over the years when creating startup pitch decks:
1. Google Slides is usually the best option
Pitch Decks are living documents that we need to update regularly—and often in a hurry. For the most part this means tasteful combos of fonts, images, and layouts (see below for my specific suggestions).
We don't necessarily need the best graphic design and animations.
For the most part I find that Google Slides is good enough visually. Google Slides also provides the best collaboration experience, along with killer version control (meaning you can roll back to pretty much any individual edit).
Google Slides does have limitations regarding charts and smart art.
PowerPoint is a close second. It offers a wider feature set, but a poorer collaboration experience.
Keynote looks the best, but is neither portable nor collaborative. And I find that most pitch decks don't need whatever extra boost we think we're getting in design.
The rest of this post will assume that we're using Google Slides, but the tips apply no matter which presentation app we choose.
2. Create slides that look good and are easy to update
My goal is always to create slides that look great and that are easy for us to update ourselves. Remember how we need to update our slides all the time and at the last minute?
90% of the visual appeal is in the choice of fonts, images, and layouts.
Be careful when working with graphic designers. They have a tendency to create slides that look spectacular...but can't be edited easily. I've found it's better to dial down the visuals a bit in order to keep the slide editable.
For the most part this means tasteful combos of fonts, images, and layouts (see below for my specific suggestions).
But first, here's a trick I use all the time:
Cropping images with a shape can improve the visual appeal of slides. In Google Slides we can select the image, click the cropping tool, and then choose a shape to apply.
Use both the yellow handle(s) and the cropping feature (double-click on any image) to reshape the frame.
There is a limitation in Google Slides where rotating the frame also rotates the image (which can make it confusing when we try to change the image).
For more complicated mattes, it may be best to use PNG layers to overlay photos with a transparent section. In this slide, the background image is sitting underneath editable text, circles with shadows, an orange line on the left, and a blue PNG splash shape on the right:
We can then simply swap out the background without touching any of the layered elements. This gives us incredible power to quickly update our own slides:
3. Reduce the amount of info on each slide
Determine the use of this Pitch Deck:
1) If the Pitch Deck will be emailed, then the viewer will read it on their own and therefore the slides require more text. In this case the slide needs to tell the story.
2) If the Pitch Deck will be presented live, then each slide needs to work as a platform for you to create a personal connection with the audience. In this case, it’s important for the you to tell the story.
In this case, text on the slide competes with the your ability to tell the story. Every time you switch slides the audience will stop listening to you for as long as it takes them to read all the new text. So in live pitches your slides actually start to compete with you for attention.
We normally don't have two separate versions of our pitch deck—one for email and one for live presenting—so I recommend using the least amount of text possible that still works for emailing.
I avoid reading the slides to my audience when I'm presenting live. Find different words to tell your story. Otherwise you'll find that the audience gets bored because you're not adding value (they could just read the slides themselves).
If I do have a text-heavy slide that I want my audience to read, I'll tell them, "Go ahead and read this slide" and then I'll give them 30 seconds before I speak again. This felt weird the first few times I did it (because of the long silence) but it works incredibly well.
A good trick that I use when creating startup pitch decks is to do a brain dump and write really long, text-heavy slides. Then I go back and cut again and again until I get each slide down to just a few short bullet points.
Here's an example of a slide that works for both email and in-person:
3a. Use larger text
Legibility is important, plus we’re often trying to reduce the amount of text on each slide.
Investors may skew older, in which case they do better with larger text.
For these reasons, I recommend at least 18 point text wherever possible.
3b. Use images, icons, and diagrams wherever possible
Visuals help people understand and retain the information that you're presenting. They make your presentation more entertaining and they break up monotonous text slides.
Striking visuals are also what pop into viewers’ heads the next day—triggering a recollection of the entire presentation.
People will spontaneously remember the perfect image hours—or days—later:
This one's good too:
Diagrams help people understand important points and user flows. The combination of a clear visual plus you explaining key concepts works wonders for establishing yourself as the trusted authority:
3c. Use animations to slowly introduce information
We want to reduce the amount of new text appearing on the screen at any one time (remember that text fights with you for the audience’s attention). I recommend having each paragraph of text build on individually. This allows you to make one point at a time.
You can also link image and icon builds to happen at the same time as each text element.
In the diagram above, for example, I would build each icon and text box on separately. I would talk to each point before triggering the animation to bring on the next arrow, icon, and text box.
In Google Slides, click the "By Paragraph" option inside each animation to have each bullet point build on separately:
I usually stick to simple build animations. Anything more complicated—and more flashy—tends to be more of a distraction than a help. Remember that we're trying to create a connection with our audience, and we're trying to create a presentation that helps us do that, while minimizing distractions.
4. Use the Theme Builder for colors, fonts, and slide layouts
Access the Theme Builder in Google Slides using the View menu:
The Theme Builder allows you to standardize the fonts, colors, and slide layouts. This gives "future you" the power to make global updates, like changing a color in one place and having it change on every single slide. You'll thank me later:
Setting your colors in the Theme Builder makes it easy to select them from the color palette when you're editing slides. And setting your fonts and layouts in the Theme Builder saves time and ensures consistency.
4a. Pick the right colors
I've learned to limit the number of colors in my presentations. I typically use:
Main highlight color
Extra highlight color (maybe)
I choose a light background color if I'm using a dark text color (and this combo saves the most ink if I'm printing the slides). Otherwise I'll choose a dark background color if I'm using a light text color.
I use a lot of white, black, and dark blue for my background and text colors.
I usually only use one highlight color—but sometimes I'll use a second highlight color. Adobe offers a free color palette tool at color.adobe.com (and there are a bunch of other options too if you Google "free color palette tool").
And that's it. Simple is best here. The only place where I'll use more colors is in charts—where I'll use shades of one or two of my main colors (in this case gold and navy, which you can see anchoring the corners):
4b. Choose sexy font pairs
Serifs are the little points that stick off of letters. The New York Times logo is in a serif font—and serif fonts tend to point to the past. There are, of course, more modern serif fonts.
"Sans Serif" means "without serifs," and sans serif fonts tend to feel more modern. This blog post is done entirely in sans serif fonts.
The trick with startup pitch decks is to choose one font for the slide titles and a different font for the text. These two fonts should be complementary—even sexy.
Try a free tool like FontPair.co to suggest pairs of fonts that work well together.
I spend ten minutes choosing two fonts and that's it. I find that anything more complicated is both wasted time and potentially distracting in a startup pitch deck.
I also try to use fonts which are available on Google Fonts—which means I can easily use them in my slides and online. Fancy rare fonts that I have to install on my computer tend to not work well on websites, which is a problem.
Bringing it all together
Here's the same slide with different colors and fonts. See how it completely changes the feel?
Now you are a design ninja, but you're keeping it simple.
5. Practice, practice, practice
I read an interview with Marc Benioff of Salesforce where he said that he needs to practice each presentation seven times before he feels comfortable. By "practice" he means running through it talking out loud clicking through his slides. Seven times.
It's not a quick process, but it ensures that he feels comfortable when he finally steps in front of his audience.
Remember that our goal is to establish trust by becoming the trusted authority and telling an authentic, informative, entertaining story. Practice is how we get there.
I hope these startup pitch decks tips help you. Please let me know if you have questions.
Mike Lingle is obsessed with helping founders grow their businesses. He's a serial entrepreneur, mentor, and executive in residence at Babson College and Founder Institute. Check out Rocket Pro Forma if you want to quickly create your financial projections.