Why is it so difficult for founders and business leaders to explain what they do? They have a great product they are passionate about but often find themselves unable to convey their message to customers, staff or investors. Consumed by running the business day to day, they get lost in detail and cannot see the forest for the trees. Their business lacks a clear, compelling story that explains what they do and why it matters. The new CMO of a video entertainment network explained to me how debilitating the lack of a clear narrative was to his own business: “Without a clear expression of the brand that my team can get behind we get bogged down. We deliberate over every opportunity and decision because we don’t know what’s on-brand and what’s not.” Each one of his team had their own version of what the company did and so they described the business and the products they were selling in a different way. Over the subsequent weeks, I took on the task of creating a song sheet that they could all sing from. This took the form of a simple and clear 15-page deck and it became the foundation for more detailed pitch decks, presentations, sales materials and a brand book that were created by the marketing team, all telling the same consistent story. Having by now created dozens of decks for organizations of all shapes and sizes, I can share what I’ve learned about how to build an effective narrative for a business or brand whether the goal is to raise money, sell product or provide a north star for staff to follow.

Say what you do up front. The mistake of many decks, especially ones that are pitching a new product or business, is to not clearly explain right at the beginning what it is that they’re pitching. On the title page, right under the name you should put a simple description of what it is so the audience can place it. If you don’t do this at the start, guaranteed they’ll be puzzled and frustrated and won’t be absorbing what’s in the deck. That description might change over time as the product evolves, as was the case with Uber which started life as Uber Cab, a car service which has since become a much broader personal transportation company. But its first pitch deck said what it did right there on the title page.

Put yourself in their shoes. It’s safe to assume that pretty much nobody will care about what you’re pitching as much you do and will need some help making it relevant to their own lives. You’ve been working on your product for months and are deeply enthusiastic about how it’s going to change the world, whereas to others it’s not interesting unless you are able to give them a reason to be interested by showing how it can solve a problem that they can relate to. When working on a pitch presentation for Filmhub, a B2B global marketplace for film, I made it relevant by relating it to their own personal experience as consumers of watching movies on Netflix and Amazon.

Use an emotional hook. You’ve now told your audience what your product does and given them a way to understand why it’s relevant to them. Now you need to help them see that it’s got a higher purpose that will improve the lives of huge numbers of people. The purpose statement is important because it justifies why you are devoting your time and energy to building this product and why what you’re doing will have a positive impact. People want to make money and if you’re pitching to investors this will always be the most important thing, but they also want to have bragging rights and want to be associated with projects that have lofty goals. The question to ask yourself is what would make them want to wear a tee shirt with your company’s logo?

Write before you bullet. Your presentation should tell an engaging story that draws the audience in. While writing in bullet points is where you might end up, I always recommend first writing out the full narrative in long copy in a single flow, and only then splitting it up into slides and creating bullets to convey the important points. All too often decks are disjointed and by relying on bullets that aren’t part of a flow the presenter struggles to tell a coherent story, so losing the audience. Once I had to give a pitch in front of 400 high level VC’s. As I walked on stage the deck wouldn’t load properly on the conference organizers system. Luckily I knew the narrative so well I managed to deliver the presentation without slides and without missing a beat.

Use pictures and graphics. I spend a lot of time sourcing and creating images and graphics that tell the story. In fact, if I look at the process of creating a deck, I’d say I spend 50% of my time constructing the narrative, 30% getting the right visuals and only 20% putting them together in slides. My guess is most people spend 70% on creating the slides, which they do before anything else and then leave the story and visuals as an afterthought. A well chosen image or graphic that conveys a complex point is incredibly powerful way of making your pitch clear and engaging the audience. When choosing photographs I try and avoid Google images and instead search for really interesting images from a variety of different sources. Building graphics can be a lit of work but is totally worth it in many cases and can help you really think through what you’re trying to say.

Think of your titles as headlines. Back to my earlier point, the audience cares much less about what you’re presenting than you do, so you need to give them as much help as you can to follow your train of thought and absorb the major points of your narrative. The titles are your signposts and each one should tell the audience what you’e trying to convey in the slide so that even if they don’t pay attention to the detail they still understand the big picture of what you’re saying. For instance, rather than just saying, “Market Opportunity” maybe try “Why This is a Billion $ Company” with the points below the title supporting that assertion.

Quotes and data add credibility. Well chosen quotes from industry experts and supporting data from credible sources will help your audience believe what you’re claiming. Quotes make the presentation less dry and more like a story – but avoid cliched quotes from Einstein and the like – while a powerful data point or two from recognized research sources can be very compelling and show you’ve done your homework.

Make it presentable in 15 mins. The temptation is always to include too much, but your audience has a very limited attention span and if you’ll lose them if you can’t do it in under 15 minutes. In many cases you need to do it in less: I’ve pitched to VC’s where there was just 5 minutes to present. The trick is to put all the major points in 12–15 slides and then have backup slides with more more detail to cover any questions.

Do at least two versions. At the very least you’ll need a version for presenting in person and one that can be left behind or emailed that contains copy that can be read and understood without any other context. If you’ve written out the full narrative before building the deck, it should be pretty easy to write this version. You might need more than these two versions. Every audience is coming from a different perspective (see my earlier point about putting yourself in their shoes) and will benefit from a version of the deck tailor-made tho them. It’s vital to do some research on who you’re presenting to so you know in advance what they’re interested in.

Always be improving. As you present you’ll get feedback and questions that will help you improve your deck for the next time. Every time is a learning opportunity and I’d recommend taking notes and making changes the same or at latest the next day while it’s still fresh in your mind.

Some final thoughts: know your material back to front and rehearse; try presenting without a deck so slides don’t become a crutch; find a designer to make it really professional looking, or at the very least spend some effort sourcing a good template; and finally, consider hiring an expert to help you create the narrative and put the whole thing together.

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