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With Zoë Dove–Many

Crafting the Perfect Pitch Narrative

Crafting your narrative and pitch deck will be one of the major challenges you face as an early-stage founder. What makes for a successful pitch? What are common mistakes founders make? What are some key choices to consider? What content should you include in your deck vs leave for your data room? What color palette and font should you use? Everyone and their mom has an opinion. So, who should you listen to?

To cut through the noise, we sat down with Zoë Dove–Many. Zoë is a brand strategist and designer who helps climate tech founders get funded and grow their companies.

Start with the story (not the deck)

Before you make a single slide, start by asking yourself “why did I start this company?” Go deep; use as many words as you like. Then, ask “who is my customer?” These might seem like simple questions but the answers will form your core message. Tell someone the resulting story and ask them to tell it back to you. What stuck? What didn’t? How did they tell the story differently? Use these insights to start honing your narrative. This will form the basis of your deck (and memo, elevator pitch, etc etc).

No one cares as much as you do

Your audience’s interest starts, and ends, with “what’s in it for me?” As a founder, you’ve spent years thinking about your big idea. While you will be tempted to tell them all about your passion — and all the dozen widgets you’ve built — the product itself forms only one part of your story. Just as important, if not more so for investors, is how your product will make them money. Think like a VC — your product can’t shine if your business doesn’t. There were a hundred decks before you and there are a hundred founders in line after you. Stand out by radically simplifying your message to only its most essential ingredients. Details can come after you’ve won their interest. In practice, this looks like showing a VC that a large, global market exists, with concrete customers that feel a specific pain. And that you are best positioned to address that pain. Period.

Think like your customer

Well-worn advice, yes, but founders often forget that this forms half of your core message. You likely know your customer well. But, how does an investor know this? Let’s say you're selling dairy-free, vegan ice cream. Take investors on a journey: Who is buying it? What is her name? Where is she buying it? When? How does it fit into her day? Why is she buying your ice cream instead of your competitor’s? Make this concrete for your audience so that they can see that you’ve done your homework and that the opportunity is real.

Do your audience’s work for them

Think about how many hours you’ve spent wrestling with your idea. Now, imagine a VC trying to understand it in less than four minutes (the average time spent on a pre-Series A deck). If you don’t do their work for them, they will move onto the next pitch. This is why building a pitch deck is so hard — you need to condense all your learning into soundbites that will be quickly understood.

Simplify (more than you thought possible)

You’ve already used too many words. Go back; try again.  Don’t make the same mistake many founders do by loading your deck with too. Much. Stuff.

Start your deck as a storyboard. Ask yourself what are the handful of key points you want your audience to walk away with. Now, create one slide per point and write a header of five words or less. Hold their hand; start with the most important idea to set the hook (this is likely the TAM and the major problem you solve). Follow it with a few essential pieces (the tech, your team, etc). Add one or two slides between each big idea with the most important evidence and supporting details. Do your audience’s work for them by carefully nesting information so that they know what is most important (and so that they only have to go deeper when they want to).

Finally, for each slide, ask yourself, “why is this important?” Write one to three subheaders. That’s it. Story complete. Anything else you add will dilute your message; put any supporting information you feel may be important in your appendix (or anywhere besides your core slides).

Use design so that anyone can understand each slide at a glance

Only add a graphic if it advances your story; don’t add anything because it's pretty. First design; then, critique. Cut everything you can. Are there too many colors? Too many photos? The more you take away, the more impact what you keep will have.

Don’t put your team slide up front

Nobody will care about who you are until they understand what you are trying to do (unless you are famous, in which case they will already know who you are). Putting your team slide up front is like walking into the room and throwing your resume at someone. You're already in the room; you don’t need to prove your right to be there. VCs will think about why you're trying so hard when you want them to be listening to your pitch. Your message may get lost.

Instead, walk into the room and say: “Hey, I’ve got a great opportunity for you. I’m doing xyz cool stuff. This is why it matters. I want you to be a part of it. We’re both going to make a lot of money. Here’s how. And btw, I have a PhD and started three successful companies.” While your team is extra-important during your pre-seed and seed rounds, it's your team in context that matters most. The team supports your narrative; it's not the narrative itself.

Only ask qualified people for feedback

Again, less is more. Everyone will have an opinion whether they are qualified or not. Ask five people who have raised or invested money themselves (and who don’t have direct interests in your current funding round), ideally in a similar business segment as you. Many of your advisors and consultants will not be qualified.

Send specific questions to your reviewers. In particular:

  1. Were you ever bored or confused?
  2. Did you care about what you read?
  3. What feels unnecessary? What’s missing?

Zoë Dove-Many is a brand strategist who is on a mission to bring climate solutions out of the lab and into the mainstream with the power of storytelling. She founded Helloë Creative, a creative collective, and writes a weekly newsletter on storytelling for climate startups. You can reach her at zoe@helloecreative.com.

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