Pitch Deck Mistakes to Avoid #2
15 Design Tips For Early-stage Startup Founders
I get to see lots of pitch decks as a freelance designer working with founders, and in my role as an EIR at Backstage Capital — a VC fund that invests exclusively in underrepresented (people of color, women, and LGBT) founders.
This is the second story in a series about startup pitch deck issues you can now hopefully avoid. The first story covered business mistakes I’ve seen a lot of founders make. This one is focused on design issues.
Let’s dive in!
15 Pitch Deck Design Issues
Lack of Detail
1. Non-descriptive cover slide
The cover slide might be the only one an investor sees. It’s like the 5-second test with website landing pages — can a VC glance only at the cover of your deck and tell their partners what your startup does? If not, then you have failed to communicate clearly and you risk losing their attention.
Sometimes founders want to make their initial product seem bigger, but then in communicating what it could become, they neglect to say what it is now. Be specific. Be obvious. Don’t do: “The next big thing in music creation.” Do: “Make music with the help of an Artificial Intelligence.” Or even: “A consumer music creation app with AI assistance.”
2. Not defining your business before showing specifics
Before you share your go-to-market strategy, competitive landscape, or really anything else, make sure you define your product first.
The specifics of your business are always assessed in relation to your product. One GTM strategy might be great for a delivery service that has to gain traction in regional locations, but terrible for a social app that needs global scale.
3. Declaring goals/metrics before defining product/service
On the same notion as the previous issue, it doesn’t make any sense to get into growth metrics (“we’re going to have X users and $Y revenue by month 12…”) or similar without first making it clear what you’re building.
4. No visual of your product
Investor expectations about the progress of startups rise over time as the number of startups grow and the barriers to entry are lowered. The days of an idea scribbled on the back of a napkin getting funded are over unless you’ve got an impeccable track record to mitigate execution risk. Now you need some level of traction or validated learnings, which requires that you’ve shipped some version of your product.
There’s no reason why you can’t visualize your product in your deck to help investors understand what you’re building. Even if you can’t afford a designer yet, and you’re not one yourself, you can still use free software to make a wireframe. Show that you’re scrappy — frankenstein some screenshots together!
Everyone (including you) should be aware that your product will evolve and possibly change completely, but you can’t iterate if you never ship. Visualizing your product isn’t just helpful to investors — it’s required to get it in front of your users so that you can learn and adapt, and to communicate your idea to help recruit co-founders and employees.
You can’t iterate if you never ship.
Timing + Comprehension
5. Too many slides to make a single point
VCs spend an average of 3 minutes and 44 seconds on successful decks.¹ Did you catch that said successful decks? Some investors will not read decks with more than 12 slides.
A deck is an introductory overview of your startup, not an in-depth report. If you take 5 text-heavy slides to define the problem you’re solving, we’ve gotten lost in the weeds.
There likely are more than the 1-3 most important customer pain points you share in your deck, but that’s a great starting point, and you need investors to read and understand everything you share here. If you include too many slides to cover just the problem you’re solving, they will skip most of it, or possibly get frustrated and close the deck. Be concise.
6. Wasted slides
It can actually be pretty cool in other kinds of decks (like for conference talks) to have a whole slide for a title (i.e., “Traction”, “The Problem”…), but in pitch decks, it’s better to not waste a moment of the investor’s time.
Think of each slide (remember, you get 10–12 maybe — if you’re lucky and they read that far!) as delivering a super important point with 1–3 supporting sub-points. A dedicated title slide communicates only that you’re about to talk about that title on the next slide; that’s not super helpful for investors reading 20 decks each day.
Think of each slide as delivering a super important point with 1–3 supporting sub-points.
Another thing that can work well for conference talk decks, but that is something you should definitely avoid in pitch decks is adding list items in over multiple slides. You know the trick — a slide shows a single bullet point; the presenter clicks to the next slide which adds another bullet point below; etc. You can even do this when presenting your pitch deck in-person, but make sure you only include 1 complete slide when sharing your pitch deck in any other context.
7. Unrecognizable logos
Logos can be an effective way to quickly communicate some things. If your team has worked at notable companies like Facebook and Google, showing those logos on your team slide works brilliantly — that experience means you’re qualified to work at those companies and implies a high level of skill for whatever role you had there.
But when an investor doesn’t recognize a logo shown, it’s actually harder to make sense of than simply reading text. An unfamiliar logo in addition to text adds noise to the slide.
When in doubt, just be overt with text and spell out why the credential is relevant and important (ex.: “Co-founder/CTO at MyLessorKnownStartup — Enterprise SaaS, scaled to 3 employees and $1M ARR.”) Don’t be verbose and make it easy to read with a quick scan.
8. Icons or stock photos that have no relation to the content
Every single visual element you have in your deck should have a valid purpose for being there. I see a lot of icons in decks (and websites) that don’t make it easier to understand the text they accompany. In those cases, it would be better to simply have only text. The only thing more confounding is when there’s only an icon to express a concept, but it’s not clear what concept that might be.
Every single visual element you have in your deck should have a valid purpose for being there.
Photos can be a wonderful addition to pitch decks. They can add emotional impact and often communicate complex ideas more efficiently than words. This is not true when the photo you choose has nothing to do with the point your making on a slide. If adding something might make your point more confusing if misunderstood, leave it out.
9. Difficult to read typeface
Please never do this. It’s such a shame if your deck can’t be read because of the typeface you chose because it negates all the hard work you did crafting the content and nearly guarantees you won’t be considered. Take the advice of Kevin Hale, a designer and Partner at YC — if you don’t trust yourself to make a good decision here, just go with bold Helvetica.
10. Font size too small
At least 12% of investors read decks on their phone.² And even when they’re reading your deck on a larger screen, the more text you add, the more it’s likely to be ignored. Decks are not the right context for verbosity. You want your most important points to be obvious and easy to understand. Too much text will always work against that outcome.
There are rare exceptions to many of these recommendations. The later the stage of the round you’re raising, the more detail is expected from investors, so a Series A round deck is going to have more information to communicate than a Pre-Seed round deck.
Also, if you’re someone who just must include lots of info, be concise and minimal in your primary slides, and then create as many appendix slides as you need. Appendix slides are wonderful for supportive, optional content that you can use to back up points you make when pitching in-person, or to respond to known questions investors have about your business. For your primary slides, never, ever, ever reduce the font size too small to compensate for your inability to edit your text to be strong and concise.
For your primary slides, never reduce the font size too small to compensate for your inability to edit your text.
What’s too small? Zoom out to 25% of the actual size of your presentation — is the text still legible? For Keynote, 20pt is probably the smallest you want to go, and that’s for less important text like the bullet list of credentials for each person on a team slide. The only exception might be footnotes for stat sources.
11. Line spacing too tight
Similar to the previous issue, this is another way to make text illegible. Line spacing (line-height in CSS) is the vertical space between each line of text. When your line spacing is too tight (each row of text is too close to the ones above/below), it makes reading painful and makes the reader feel like things are very claustrophobic and cramped. It’s much better to remove most of your text (only include what’s essential!) and increase the line spacing.
12. Squished or stretched images
I get it — not everyone’s a designer. Sometimes founders will take screenshots to use in their deck that have text, photos, or charts in them. It’s a bit lazy, but as long as the point being communicated is clear, that can work. But then they resize them out of proportion or too small, making the contents hard to decipher and making the slide look low-quality.
If you don’t have enough space to stick the image you want in there, rethink the entire thing. You might need to remove text from the image and add it back in with your presentation editing software (Keynote, etc.) If the image is really important, remove other content on the slide to make room for it.
Never scale human faces out of proportion! It’s highly unlikely that a circus, drug trip vibe is the one you want to convey. Pretty much try never to scale any image out of proportion — if it doesn’t fit, use something else.
13. Not enough variation in chart colors
Using similar shades of the same color in charts makes it really hard to match keys and labels to their corresponding items, and it makes differences between items hard to see. Err on the side of being too obvious. Try turning your monitor brightness very low and see if you can still see the difference between colors.
14. Poor placement of important elements
There are too many ways placement and size affect the prominence of elements in your slides to cover in this story, but let’s touch on a few key ideas. English readers read from left to right and top to bottom, so you can leverage that hierarchy in your design. For example, if you want 3 things to be read in sequence, order them from left to right. Use size to emphasize or deemphasize elements. Just be sure not to work against these idea and minimize or bury the important points in your slide.
15. Footer bars
Having a sizable footer row at the bottom of every slide in your deck (perhaps with your company name and page numbers) can look cool and seem like a good idea (footers work in many other contexts), but in pitch decks, slide real estate is limited, and taking up crucial space on the busiest slides is wasteful. If you are a master of brevity, maybe you could make it work, but I have yet to see that deck.
1, 2. What We Learned from 200 Startups Who Raised $360M by DocSend
Was this helpful? I’d love to hear your feedback to make sure I’m sharing ideas that help you. I’m @bryanlanders on Twitter.
I’m offering pitch deck consulting as a design service in an effort to connect with early-stage startup founders. Let’s talk about the overall narrative of your deck, create a slide sequencing that leads to a feeling of momentum, and how to make your advantages and differentiation obvious.
Get in touch! And hit that 💜 if you liked this story to help other founders.