Pitch deck: it’s not as difficult as you think.
Five sections, 10 slides, and one comms mind trick that win
KEVIN L. BROWN
A wise investor once said that inside every 67-page pitch deck is a useful one-pager struggling to get out.
That same venture capitalist later explained this essential, universal truth: nobody likes their time wasted. “Good communication is the ability to say the most stuff in the fewest words,” according to Morgan Housel. “Those receiving information skim, skip, and mind wander far more often than they ask for more.”
This truth is proven with data. The average human attention span is just eight seconds — shorter than a fish! A 60% completion rate is about as good as it gets for books. Less than 20% is common, even for best-sellers. And DocSend found that investors spend just 3:44 on a pitch deck.
The best companies and communicators know this fact. And adjust their presentations accordingly. Airbnb’s first (and famous) pitch deck was only 14 slides with 300 words total. It led to an easy $615k seed round in 2009 with another $7.2MM a year later. Similarly, we’re developing an eye health pitch deck to help a client raise billions of dollars. And it’s going to be no more than 10-15 pages.
So, why do social venture leaders overly complicate their pitch decks? Some skeptics argue there’s dishonesty lurking under word salad. Because that’s what it’s there for: to obscure. A kinder interpretation for those struggling to distill it and explain it simply? According to Einstein — maybe even they don’t understand it well enough. Or perhaps it’s just well-intentioned bravado. We like talking about ourselves and care about the communities we serve.
Regardless of the reason, nonprofits and social enterprises must get better at pitching… if they want to get better at fundraising… so they can get better at creating impact.
Here’s a simple guide.
The purpose of a pitch deck.
A pitch deck is meant to simply stimulate interest and further conversation. Not to convey every detailed aspect of your social venture or new idea.
If the overview is well received, you can follow up with more info. Or schedule a deep-dive meeting. Then deliver a great proposal, as we wrote about here. But if the audience loses interest in this critical first impression? Game over.
From presentations to conversations.
Presenting is a tool of swaying, while conversing is a tool of weighing. Through the latter, you determine if both parties would be well served by working together.
So, this deck exists to amplify your story. Not to tell it. And it’s certainly not here to convince. Because presentations build buying resistance, while conversations lower it.
“We must move away from the place where the client sits with arms crossed in the role of judge, and we take to the stage with song and dance in the role of auditioning talent. Stars do not audition.”
SHANNYN LEE, WIN WITHOUT PITCHING
The Mighty Ally approach.
The Mighty Ally pitch deck format is explicitly designed for growth-stage nonprofits and social enterprises. It’s based on story arc best practices. Plus learnings from Silicon Valley VCs. And our years of brand-building experience.
Modify the following five main sections at your own risk — this stuff has been proven. But definitely feel free to rename a section or include the content that serves your social venture best. Make it your own.
1. PROBLEM OR CHALLENGE
Open with a bang: 1–2 pages about the issue at hand. Get the audience leaning in, understanding why this conversation matters, and triggering their primal instinct to either thrive or survive. Important: this piece is not about you!
It can include your theory of change problem statement. It often talks about the people being served. And it can be powerful with a statistic or two that quantifies the problem — but don’t overwhelm. Better yet, tell a story that frames the issue.
2. SOLUTION, MISSION, HOW IT WORKS
With the proper framing in place, spend 2–3 pages explaining your solution, idea, or mission. If it’s a pilot or early-stage organization, don’t shy away from calling it a hypothesis. This invites the audience into your solution.
The ‘rule of threes’ can work well here, like three interventions or a three-phase process. Best would be a simple graphic that visually illustrates your work. Remember, save all the nitty-gritty details for later!
3. EVIDENCE OF IMPACT, ABOUT, PARTNERS
Now you’ve conveyed a problem and solution. Next, you’ll give the audience confidence your organization can execute well. And that you’d be a trusted recipient of their investment or partnership.
This piece can include your impact results to date. Some typical ‘about us’ language around the team, years in business, and locations. Or possibly the partners or funders you’ve worked with so far — to add social proof.
4. VISION OR DESIRED OUTCOMES
The final step before the ask is telling the audience where you’re headed. And getting them excited about the journey ahead. Because nothing motivates people more than bold dreams.
Perfect for this element is the 10-year target or vision statement from your theory of change. Or, for a more academic audience, even speak to long-term outcomes you’re measuring.
5. CALL-TO-ACTION, THE ASK, CONTACT
Finally, it’s time to call the audience to action. Make the ask. Give them contact information. Prompt with a question. This is your chance to create urgency — why now is the time and exactly what they can do to join you and your cause.
If it’s money you need, mention specifics. But also remember the old adage: if you ask for money you’ll get advice; and if you ask for advice you’ll get money. So, seek relationships over immediate transactions.
Further tips and tricks.
But what about everything else?
Some investors will want to see financials. Showing your knowledge of the target market or competition is helpful. Especially important is team bios — funders most often invest in people instead of specific ideas.
But put all of this information in the appendix, so you can flip to it during the conversation. Or send it as a follow-up. Don’t crowd the main message and don’t delay the back-and-forth dialogue.
Remember: people might give you a few minutes of time. But, they likely won’t give you a few minutes of their undivided attention.
There are probably 100 reasons why your organization is great. But people can only remember a few of them after a short pitch. If you just communicate your main points clearly, you’ll do better than most.
A version for each priority audience
You should have one main pitch deck. But going back to your positioning strategy, you can slightly customize the deck for each of the three priority audiences. Because you’ll pitch each audience in somewhat different ways.
Think about the personas and brand promises for each target. Your call-to-action section will definitely be different in each version. How should messaging be tweaked to meet the pains and gains for each audience?
Here’s a comms mind trick from Acumen Academy for your next pitch. Tell the funder three reasons why your idea might not work.
Why? This does five things:
1. Surprises them (in a good way), and every good story has suspense.
2. Shows humility and wisdom, compared to other hubristic leaders pitching.
3. Indicates your idea is big and important enough to potentially fail.
4. Lets you address future remedies, and makes them work harder to find objections.
5. Builds trust and shifts the pitch into a two-way collaboration around solutions.
Needless to say, branding matters. Use your custom fonts and colors.
Spell check! And utilize Hemingway Editor to improve your writing.
Pick clear, compelling images. One per slide. Don’t stretch them.
Animation can be cheesy, so incorporate it sparingly.
Adopt Google Slides vs. PowerPoint — it’s better for collaboration.
Always PDF your pitch deck before sending over email.
Include contact info on the back page, in case it gets forwarded.
“A pitch should have 10 slides, last no more than 20 minutes, and contain no font smaller than 30 points. This impossibly low number forces you to concentrate on the absolute essentials.”
GUY KAWASAKI, AUTHOR & VENTURE CAPITALIST
Inspiration and ingredients for this post
Thanks to ideas from Morgan Housel, Guy Kawasaki, Win Without Pitching, StoryBrand, Mulago Foundation, Marshall Ganz, Y Combinator, Debra Meyerson, Adam Grant & Daniel Pink via Acumen Academy.
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