Pitch Deck Guidelines

6 minutes, 5 links


Updated September 15, 2023
Raising Venture Capital

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As you begin preparing your slides, keep these general guidelines in mind.

Keep it short. You don’t have much time, and your audience typically doesn’t have much attention span.

Analysts typically recommend 10–12 slides, cautioning that a solid, longer deck is better than an incomplete shorter one, and you never want to cram too much text on any one slide. Seed-stage investor Leo Polovets recommends keeping a deck under 500 words. If in doubt, you can’t go wrong with 12 slides.

Your deck may also include an appendix with several more slides, and you might decide to create a longer, more text-heavy version of the deck that you can email (you probably wouldn’t send both). The purpose of the appendix or longer version is to provide more detail and deeper coverage on anything in your main slides you think your audience might ask about. You can’t depend on these additions, but it can be very helpful if the extra material corresponds to questions you’ve anticipated being asked. “Do you have any justification for those projections?” “Oh, of course, here’s our research.”

Depending on what your company’s strong suits are at this stage, you might have two slides for traction, or two for team, et cetera. But it’s very important that you don’t overload investors with information, even if you think they need to know everything. Many founders say, “I have a lot of slides but I click through them really fast; that’s my storytelling style!” No. Keep it at 12. Remember, “brevity is a by-product of vigor.” Extra information can go in the appendix or emailed version.

important Startup investor and operator Eric Friedman advises founders to be prepared to tell their story in varying lengths of time. You should be able to pitch in an elevator in 1 minute, in 5 minutes at a dinner party, 15 if you have a little more time, 30 if you are really sitting down with someone, and 60 if you’re in front of a partner at a firm. (Obviously, you won’t be pitching directly from your deck in some of those situations—always remember that the deck is not a crutch, it’s a supplement). If you prepare for all of these settings, you’re far more likely to get investors, find people to work with you, sell your product, and generally get people interested. If an investor is 30 minutes late or only has 15 minutes on their schedule, you can make it work. For an average pitch meeting, prepare to get through your deck in 15–20 minutes, keeping in mind that that time will at least double with investors’ questions.

Show, don’t tell. Favor visuals over text as much as possible. Use photos, maps, and other graphics.

When you get into the product details, include a demo (or at least a mock-up) if possible, rather than a written list of features.

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If you’re providing a longer deck in an email, you do want to include more detailed text information in that version. You can’t rely on your attendees to remember the meaning of a particular image the next day or week.

Keep it simple. Remember, the main point of your pitch is to make an impression, not to provide all the finer points of your company in detail. Your audience is going to walk away remembering maybe only one or two moments from your presentation. If nothing else, you need to communicate clearly what you do and why it matters.

Be wary of using complicated builds or animations in your deck as well—they increase the number of clicks needed to return to previous slides, making it hard to get back to your flow, and they’re often distracting from the actual substance of your pitch.

caution Avoid industry jargon. Besides being obscure and, more often than not, completely meaningless, jargon lowers the impact of your message by wrapping it in unnecessary layers of language. Not sure what’s jargon and what isn’t? Read, “Startups can’t explain what they do because they’re addicted to meaningless jargon,” a piece we love from Josh Horwitz at Quartz.

Iterate. Ultimately, you want to be prepared for the content of your pitch deck to change radically over the course of the fundraising process. Avoid thinking of your story, your pitch, your data, or your deck as static products you can shove out the door—cycle in what you learn as you research, practice, and present. Instead, consider designing your pitch (including the story, deck, and presentation) more like a product development cycle. Take rehearsal seriously, so you can make sure you’re hitting your marks and sparking inspiration in as many audiences as possible. It’s always a good idea to revisit your deck after every pitch you make to investors—what did they react to, positively and negatively? What did they ignore that you thought would impress them? Don’t be afraid to kill your darlings.

Elements of the Pitch Deck

By now, pitch decks have a fairly standard format of 10–12 slides that investors expect founders to roughly adhere to: thesis, vision, problem, solution, traction, team, timing, market, competition, financing, and risks and challenges.

The slides in your deck may or may not correspond directly to each of these elements, but each of them should be covered. Some founders will choose to follow this sequence slide-by-slide (one slide for thesis, the next for vision, and so on). You are unlikely to garner criticism for following that structure, but when it comes to putting the elements together, you have options. You might let your company story lead the way, weaving these elements into a narrative. Or you can consider the pitch deck modularly, where each of the elements falls into a different category that you can then work through with more flexibility. We will cover each of these strategies here, and we hope you’ll read through both of them, as they will give you different insights into what you want to convey. You should ultimately design the deck that best demonstrates your company’s mission, optimizes the flow of your story, and fits your presentation style.

It’ll also be helpful to refer to decks created and used by founders who have successfully raised venture capital, to see how they have treated these elements—don’t miss our list of great pitch decks in Appendix C.

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