You’ve no doubt spent countless hours meticulously fine-tuning your pitch deck to the point that it looks like a work of art, but do your slide headlines tell the story investors are looking for as they skim through multiple decks in a matter of minutes after a day of meetings? In this article, guest writer and co-founder of Hustle Fund, Eric Bahn, explains the why and the how of writing effective slide headlines for your pitch deck.
Keep reading for the 5 most important rules for creating slide headlines that speak to investors or visit the Acceleration for All page for the opportunity to get funding and productivity-driven tools for your startup.
Eric Bahn is a co-founder and General Partner at Hustle Fund. Prior to Hustle Fund, Eric was an angel investor and partner at 500 Startups. Before becoming a professional investor, he spent over a decade as an operator (Facebook, Instagram) and entrepreneur (Beat The GMAT). Eric is a native of Detroit, Michigan and attended Stanford University (BA, MA), which launched his career into software and startups. Eric is happily married with two kids, loves minivans, and helps lead the Hustle Fund team from his garage in the Bay Area.
Founders put a lot of work into their slides, but don’t realize one major core truth – investors don’t really read your deck. Maybe they spend 30 seconds to 3 minutes reviewing your materials, but not enough to get very deep.
This is the first of two articles on this topic and comes from a presentation I did earlier this year, where I gave a tactical walkthrough of how to create better slide headlines for your pitch deck.
In this first part, I’m going to give you an insight into who a typical VC (venture capitalist) is and a bit about the way they will view your pitch deck. You’ll get an understanding of the reasons behind why writing better slide titles is so important to get a meeting and funding.
In the next article, we’ll dive into the details of writing effective slide headlines with a practical step-by-step example.
Investors (especially VCs) are inundated with lots of pitches every day and have to go through a super-fast information triage to assess which ones to dig into properly.
Think about the persona of the VC you are pitching to. Assume they are overwhelmingly:
- White or Asian
- Went to top undergrad and business school
- Worked at a McKinsey / Goldman Sachs
Just looking at that list reminds me of what inspired Acceleration for All and how we’re aiming to level the playing field. But back to your pitch…
You need to make your deck skimmable, and do it in a way that resonates with how these investors were trained to create decks – focus on the headlines.
The 5 rules of writing effective headlines or slide titles are:
- Don’t assume that people will read your deck.
- People naturally just look at the biggest text in your deck, which should be the slide titles.
- Each slide headline should be a full sentence that describes the content of the given slide.
- When reading just the slide titles back to back, they should form a complete paragraph.
- From the headlines alone, the investor should have a 70%+ understanding of your business.
Let’s start by introducing the thinking behind crafting effective slide titles by digging deeper into the persona of a typical VC.
The Chipotle Sweatpants VC Dude
I’m sure many of you have probably tried to go out and raise capital before. And I’m sure that you took great care in putting together what you thought was the perfect pitch deck.
The colors were perfect, all the text was top left-aligned. The imagery and graphics all looked amazing. Even your friends said that this was a deck that was super compelling.
So then, when it’s all done, you take a deep breath and fire off your deck to a VC that you’ve been excited to pitch! You hit that send button…
…On the other side of the email inbox, there’s a VC jerk wearing sweatpants, he’s on his couch working from home cause it’s Covid, eating Chipotle. He receives your deck. He looks at it for 30 seconds and makes a mental note to automatically reject you and doesn’t even bother to reply to your email. You may never hear from this person ever again. What happened?!
Well, it’s complicated. A lot of things could have happened, but a common reason for a pitch deck failing in this scenario is actually something pretty simple – it’s poor slide titles. We’re going to fix that in this article and the next using an example that I’ve created for a company I made up.
I come from a product management background and personas were something I am so grateful to have been trained to do early on in my career. It is this idea of trying to build a characterization, like a stereotype, of the ideal person you’re trying to serve. In the case of products, building a product that initially serves the needs of that core person who you think will be your power user.
Personas also work really well when it comes to pitching. And I want to paint you a picture of the VC that you’re going to be serving.
So, it’s usually a dude. It’s usually a white or Asian dude. Let’s be honest.
It is changing, thankfully, but I just want to play on stereotypes. It’s usually a white or Asian dude who has possibly a green or blue Patagonia vest, just like Jared from HBO’s Silicon Valley.
He has the AllBirds shoes, goes to Burning Man, maybe takes vacations to silent retreats down in Big Sur, hangs out at the Madera Bar on Sand Hill Road.
I’m playing here on all these very big inside jokes, all these extremely annoying stereotypes of VCs. So only some of you might get this, and thankfully we’ve moved on from that era into a new more diverse era of VC.
But I want you to picture this person because a lot of times they still come from a surprisingly narrow background. They went to top schools, a lot of them come from banking, and a lot of them come from consulting.
Fun fact – I was originally hired out of college into a top consulting company, but I got fired after three months after they realized how terrible I was. But I did get through their analyst training program, and the top thing I learned there was about crafting pitch decks. It was pretty much all that I was going to be doing as a consultant. Designing these decks, these 100-page decks for the CEOs of Fortune 500 companies to present strategies to boards and so forth.
The number one rule that they taught me was that no one is going to read your deck. At all. So all those fancy charts… the data that you’re putting together, they’re not going to read it at all.
But you do need to make the deck as skimmable as possible, and this usually relates to titles. So that you can just skim through a 100-page deck as quickly as possible. Those that are reading can capture most of the value without looking at any of the slide’s content too deeply.
So why are we talking about personas and why am I telling you this story? Well, I’m an amateur cognitive scientist, I really got into psychology and cognitive science late in life. I’m not trained in this at all. But there’s a simple principle in nature that I think really applies, which is like begets like. Meaning people who are similar are naturally attracted to one another.
If you present a deck that looks very similar or at least has some of the principles applied to what analysts at the Boston Consulting Group, McKinsey’s, Goldman Sachs, etc were trained to design and conditioned to design, like I was as an early analyst, then that is sort of an example of like begets like. It’s a bit of implied messaging showing that I’m like you.
This is my theory and I think it does work and it does produce incremental gains in terms of conversion to checks over time. Sometimes it is all about those increments and optimizations in the pitch deck that allow you to fill out your funding round.
The 5 Essential Rules of a Great Pitch Deck
There are a few things to understand about a great pitch deck so here are the 5 rules that I believe that everyone should follow. At Hustle Fund, we’ve reviewed over 30,000 deals in our careers across our team. Yep, 30k. So we’ve seen a few pitch decks in our time.
Again assume no one is going to read your deck, truly. Occasionally I see these decks that are super duper text-heavy. It’s like the founders are trying to produce this standalone product, this deck that could be passed around that provides 100% context about the entire nuance of the business. All this tiny text, disclaimers, data points, etc.
If you think about that persona of the VC who’s maybe seeing dozens of these things every day. He’s maybe earmarking like an hour at the end of the day after taking a bunch of meetings to look at decks. His sweatpants now are kind of gross from the Chipotle stains and all that stuff. You know this is a person that’s just going to be trying to fly through to put yes, no, yes, no flags on those decks as quickly as possible. So if you’re going to present something that takes 40 minutes to read, that’s a real bummer because humans are naturally lazy. Don’t assume that people will want to read a deep deck. That’s rule 1.
This leads us to rule 2, which relates to the size of your slide titles. The thing that people naturally do in these kinds of decks is just look at the biggest text, then try to grok what’s happening just from that biggest text. It just so happens that the biggest text on your pitch deck is going to generally be your slide titles. So keep that in mind – this is really the crux of this entire article.
Rule 3 though is where it starts to get a little bit less obvious. Each slide title should be a full sentence. I’m very very biased towards this treatment. I very strongly believe that if you can concisely summarize what you’re trying to say in one brief sentence, possibly two, but ideally one sentence for the slide, that is the gold standard and that’s what we’re going to aim for in the course of these two articles.
Any data or other information that you want to show, such as graphs, charts etc should just augment what that title says. It’s a very simple principle – the title is the most important thing. It’s a sentence at the top of your slide and then any information below that is just a pure augmentation of that.
So if I’m claiming the market that I’m serving is $5 trillion on my slide title, that’s a crazy number right, but then you present the OECD data in the slide and the Fed data etc that supports this fact, then the VC will be like this looks OK, I’m not going to read that but it looks credible from credible sources so I believe this slide so let’s move on.
The 4th rule is that the title slides should form a complete paragraph. When you read just the slide titles back to back that you’ve created into sentences, when you read those one after the other, they should form a cohesive complete paragraph.
The 5th rule is that from the slide titles alone, the investor should have a 70% understanding of your business. You have now armed your reader with 70% of everything that they need to know to understand your business enough to make a decision to proceed to the next step. Whether it’s an investment, which is usually unlikely, more likely it will be an invitation to talk or to meet to then get into more of the nuances of the business and the full pitch.
So those are the 5 rules.
A lot of founders sometimes hesitate and say, well, I just want to reveal as little as possible and you know, get to the meeting where I can control the narrative. I understand and empathize with that sentiment but I think it’s very unrealistic.
Even if you’re able to get to a full pitch with a Partner, what often happens is that the Partner is just going to share your deck with everyone on his or her team to try to get some different perspectives. So more people than you realize are going to view your deck without any inclusion of your own vocal narrative.
Because the Partner is just going to send around your DocSend link or just pdf it and share around your pdf, people are going to make judgments and decisions based on just this deck. And again, if it is very text-heavy or they have to do lots of reading, that’s a bummer.
Or to go in the polarized other direction – if it’s not revealing enough because you really care about your vocal narration in a real pitch – it’s not going to be sufficient enough to make a decision. So this is where the art of pitch deck headlines actually matters.
So let’s keep those 5 rules in mind for part two of this article (coming soon!) where we’ll look at some real examples of a totally fake company with slide headlines that get the attention you want!
If you’re a founder who is currently in the process of finding investors, be sure to also read Eric’s previous guest post How to Raise Capital Via Newsletter Updates. You can also visit the ViewSonic workplace page for other valuable insights and solutions for productive work setups.