Don’t think of a pitch as a number of slides. Start with the story.
A great pitch is a story. All stories take the audience on a journey but your story can be told in many different ways, from many different perspectives. So start by figuring out how to tell the best version of your story.
Stories need to build emotional tension and then release it; you can’t keep your audience waiting too long to feel the tension building, or to feel it release. So not all stories should begin at the beginning. Some should skip forward or backward in time, or leave some of the past or some of the future out entirely.
So where’s the point of maximum emotional tension in your journey? What’s the scariest bit about what you’re trying to do? What’s the most emotional way your customers have expressed their thanks for what you’ve helped them achieve, or their frustration with being stuck doing things the old way? What’s the dumbest thing the opposition has said?
Start at that moment of emotional tension and release and then plan the rest of your story around it. What needs to go before, so that the audience can grasp how significant this is, and who the characters in the story are? What needs to come after?
If I’m pitching in a roster of ten other startup pitches, the order of pitches is important, because the audience’s attention span shortens with each pitch. So even if I believe the tension-release point should be in the fifth minute of my story, I’ll have to find a way to bring it closer to the beginning, or my audience won’t make it that far and turn back to their smartphones.
Once you know the structure of your story, you need to write a script.
An unscripted pitch is different, every time you tell it, so it can only be refined so much, and usually not enough.
A scripted pitch can be written, rehearsed and rewritten down to each word, pause, gesture and intonation. If the story doesn’t work with test audiences (aka your colleagues, partner, friends or kids) then it’s easier to make small tweaks to a script than remember exactly what you said in an unscripted pitch and remember not to do it that way again.
Next learn your script.
Learn it by rehearsing it without referring to the script. Nobody can memorise the whole script first time, so do it the way actors learn a script — by rehearsing a line, and then two lines, and then three lines, and so on.
You have to rehearse beyond the point of just memorising it, so that you begin to inhabit the story and the character, rather than just reciting the script.
Only at this point should you create a slide deck. Otherwise you’re not telling a story; at best you’re directing an audience’s attention to a slide deck, at worst, you’re trying to tell a story which is made of the headlines of ten slides and then waffling on around the content of each slide. Which is definitely not a story anybody will be interested to hear.
A deck should only make the points which are better expressed visually than verbally: who your customer is, what your product looks like to use, how fast your metrics are growing, your team, your contact details.
You don’t even need to have a slide for every point you make, or every point you make on a slide. If you’re telling a great story, people will be listening and paying attention. Just leave the last slide up while you keep talking, because you’ll have their attention.
Because you’re now great at pitching.