A friend had just returned from a vacation to Paris. He was telling me about his visit to the Louvre, and he mentioned his thoughts on the Mona Lisa:
“The room where it hangs is really crowded.”
“The painting is much smaller than I thought it’d be.”
“I don’t really see what all the fuss is about.”
Lots of people who visit Mona Lisa say similar things, and it’s because they’re visiting the painting as something they’re “supposed to do” in Paris rather than because they appreciate fine art. They aren’t really “art people,” and they struggle understanding why Mona Lisa is so special.
To be clear, I’m not an “art person,” and I don’t know much about fine art, so I’m woefully under-qualified to explain what makes the Mona Lisa, or any other painting, special. But that’s OK because this article isn’t about paintings. It’s about something I’m much more qualified to discuss: fundraising pitch decks.
I’m a pitch deck snob who spends more time obsessing over his slides than the average entrepreneur. Heck, I’m not even sure most investors look as closely at the minor details of pitch decks as I do. But the same is true for great art, right? The vast majority of people who visit museums are only casually glancing at the artwork. Entrepreneurs tend to approach their pitch decks the same way. It’s like seeing the Mona Lisa while in Paris. A pitch deck is a perfunctory thing entrepreneurs are “supposed to do” while fundraising rather than a complex and sophisticated piece of media capable of being evaluated and appreciated with an elevated level of knowledge and respect.
To be clear, I don’t mean most entrepreneurs don’t work hard on their decks. I just mean that most entrepreneurs don’t appreciate the nuance of pitch decks and what can elevate a pitch deck beyond the level of functional and into the level of sublime. And just like great art is wildly complex yet deceptively simple, every detail in a great pitch deck matters, nothing is a mistake or accident, and what’s excluded is just as important as what’s included.
Those kinds of little details are everywhere in your pitch deck, and my goal, in this article, is to tell you about some of the most important ones so you can elevate your pitch deck from competent to masterpiece.
It’s 2023, people! Every screen in our lives is wide, which means your slides need to be widescreen, as well. No good pitch deck uses a 4×3 aspect ratio. Not anymore. Not in 2023. I don’t care if you originally built your slides a decade ago, back when a 4×3 aspect ratio might have been acceptable. It’s time to rebuild them.
PRO TIP: To deal with slides that aren’t as tall as you were used to, learn to use the sides of your slides as places for boilerplate info like logos and headings.
Nobody wants to read a novel on a powerpoint slide. Heck, nobody even wants to read novels anymore. We live in an age of TikToks and Tweets, so your pitch deck needs as few words as possible.
PRO TIP: If you’re struggling to explain something complex without lots of words, consider using pictures instead. After all, a picture is worth a thousand words.
We’ve come a long way from the days of our main font choices being Courier, Times New Roman, or Ariel. However, despite the thousands of fonts readily available, most slide decks use whatever generic font is default for the software. Why? Experiment with your font and find something that evokes the brand and attitude of the company you’re pitching.
PRO TIP: Line spacing is just as important as font choice. You don’t want your beautiful fonts appearing in squished-together paragraphs.
Until relatively recently in human history, paper was expensive. As a result, people filled every corner of their pages, wrote on the backs of old scraps of paper, and generally didn’t discard something that could be written on until the final bit of space had been used. But times have changed, and space on a page isn’t nearly as precious as it used to be, so don’t worry about filling all the empty space on your slides. Instead, let your content breathe.
PRO TIP: In general, it’s better to make things slightly smaller — fonts, images, graphs — and leave a bit of whitespace than fill things to the edges.
While I’m on the subject of space, the virtual space of a slide deck is infinite, and your deck can include as many slides as you want. To be clear, I don’t mean your deck should be as long as possible. Instead, I mean you can spread content and ideas across multiple slides instead of cramming everything together. For example, rather than placing all the items of a list on a single slide, create a new slide for each item in your list and surround it with lots of wonderful whitespace.
PRO TIP: When you have lots of slides, you can flip through them in the background of your pitch almost like it’s a movie or flip book playing behind you as you talk. I do this often with my slides. I’ll use as many as 70 slides for a 10 minute pitch. Audiences love it. They feel more like they’re watching a movie than a pitch.
Harsh transitions make things feel less finished. For example, the metal edges on the insides of cheap wristwatches are 90-degree angles where the metal was cut by machines. In contrast, the most expensive mechanical watches — watches worth hundreds of thousands, or even millions of dollars — have soft, smooth edges smoothed by hand. The same is true for your slide deck. When you flip between slides, add a subtle fade animation. Your audience will hardly notice the difference, but the slides will feel more polished and refined.
PRO TIP: Harsh edges also make images and shapes feel cheaper. Consider adding slightly rounded edges to your images as well as any square or rectangular boxes within your slides.
In earlier days of fundraising, entrepreneurs printed their slides and shared physical copies with investors. In contrast, modern pitch decks are almost always viewed on computer screens. That means the slides don’t have to be static. You can add animations so the slides change as you talk. Use this power sparingly, but use it well. A perfectly-timed animation can be a great way to emphasize an important point.
PRO TIP: Avoid gimmicky or distracting animations. As noted in step six, quick, subtle fades are usually the best way to add dynamic elements to slides without making anything look cheap.
Books have page numbers in order to create easy reference points that people can use to convey the location of certain content. Slide decks don’t need this feature. After all, when was the last time you said, “As we can see on page 12,” during a pitch? Instead, page numbers distract audiences by making them wonder what page they’re on in relation to the larger presentation. Page numbers also make it harder to have lots of slides with small amounts of text (as per point #5 above).
PRO TIP: The other reason to avoid page numbers is because they become an annoying hassle to deal with when you inevitably add or remove slides from your deck.
Just like books have page numbers to help readers navigate them, research papers have headings. And headings are helpful for research papers, but they’re unnecessary in a good pitch deck. A good pitch deck doesn’t need to tell people when it’s describing “The Problem,” explaining “The Competition,” or talking about “Our Team.” The slides should be clear enough that people looking at them can understand the topics based on what they’re seeing and/or what a presenter is saying about them. If they can’t, the solution isn’t to add headings; the solution is to restructure the pitch deck.
PRO TIP: If you need a presentation version of your deck and a version people are going to review on their own ( a “leave behind” deck), you can add headings to the latter.
My 4-year-old loves rainbows. But, she’s also four years old. For the rest of us, documents with lots of different colors are distracting and ugly. With this in mind, make sure your slide deck doesn’t look like it ate a pile of Skittles. Limit the color palette for your deck to two or three colors.
PRO TIP: The best color combinations have one main color for primary text, one muted color for secondary text, and one highlight color for key text.