How to build a startup pitch deck

This playbook is my home-made, battle-tested process to build a robust pitch deck for an early-stage tech startup.

These 2 hours of prep work will save you 10x more time down the road, I promise.

Like all my posts, this playbook follows my policy regarding affiliation, impartiality, and non-finito.

But first, what is a pitch deck?

A pitch deck is a short presentation optimized for clarity and impact. It can be sent to a recipient who reads it, but the original intention of a pitch deck is to be "pitched" i.e. presented in person.

In the case of a startup, the pitch deck introduces the project to stakeholders - usually potential investors. As such, the pitch deck is a key document when raising funds.

The pitch deck is usually created by the founder(s) of the company. A designer or consultant may be brought in, but ultimately, the CEO is the one who owns and pitches the deck.

Building a pitch deck is deceptively simple. At first sight, all you have to do is pick a template, slap together a bunch of sleek slides and you're good to go. The truth, however, is that getting to a stable version of your deck takes weeks or even months.

This playbook is based on my own experience working as a consultant, then operating a startup accelerator, and eventually becoming an entrepreneur. It's not perfect, so feel free to share your own tips and tricks in the comment section!

1. Prep your ghost deck

The "ghost deck" is a concept that comes from consulting. The idea is to build an empty shell or skeleton of the whole deck from the start, then continuously iterate on it. So let's start building your ghost deck.

1.1. Editor

The slide editor itself doesn't matter much. Pick the one you prefer or you are most familiar with.

Popular options include Microsoft Powerpoint, Google Slides, and Apple Keynote, but some founders happily work with Slidebean, Canva, or Pitch. 

As long the presentation can be shared in PDF, you're good to go!

1.2. Template

Once you have your slide editor, I recommend you pick a template. A good template saves a massive amount of time. It also give the deck that professional "look and feel'' that we're all chasing after.

I have selected the best templates for startup pitch decks in a previous article, available here. I picked both free and paid templates, and even threw in my own template (still WIP, don't be too harsh) so you have plenty of options.

Obviously, those templates are for Powerpoint, Keynote, or Google Slides users. If you are on Canva, Slidebean, or Pitch, use the templates that are pre-included within the tool.

1.3. Master

Once you find the perfect template, you want to modify it so that it reflects your brand identity. To do so, you need to access the "Slide Master". 

The Slide Master is a feature of most editors that allow users to create a "default design" for a presentation, protected from involuntary changes. Here is how to access your Slide Master in Powerpoint and here it is in Google Slides. You can easily find how to do it for other editors.

Set up your master once and update it as needed. This will ensure consistency across your slides and save you tons of time as you iterate.

1.4. Graphic identity

If your startup already has a graphic identity, update your Master accordingly. If not, this is a great opportunity to experiment with your future brand!

I am no designer, so I'll stick to a few basic principles:

Pick a font that is readily available across most systems. Go with standard stuff, stay away from fonts that need to be purchased, downloaded, installed. DON'T use Comic Sans MS.

For an even more professional look, pick two fonts - one for headings and one for paragraphs. Don't guess, use FontPair to find good pairs of fonts.

Stick to 3 to 4 font sizes across your deck. A larger one for titles, a normal one for paragraphs, and a smaller one for notes and footers.

Same with colors: less is more. I usually go with a primary color (e.g. bright red), a secondary color (e.g. softer version of the same red), and a background color (e.g. plain white). Play around with Adobe Color if you are indecisive.

Pro tip #1: if you use MS Powerpoint, download Deckrobot. It's a free plugin that automates slide design for startup pitch decks.

Pro tip #2: at the end of your deck, create a memo slide. List down your fonts names, sizes as well as the color codes you've picked. No more forgetting and much easier for collaboration!

1.5. Footer - or not

Many founders add a footer with supposedly important information. The most extreme "footer cases" include logo, company name, a "CONFIDENTIAL" mention, date, and slide number.

I don't like it. Most of it is already on your cover anyways. It serves no real purpose. It's eating up space that could be used to make your charts bigger. It adds clutter. It distracts the reader from your key message.

Even the slide number, arguably the only element that **could** be useful, doesn't bring much value. I'd much rather refer to "the Market slide" than "slide 5".

Then again, I have been wrong before. Up to you.

2. Structure your content

“If I had eight hours to chop down a tree, I'd spend six sharpening my ax.” 

The same goes for pitch decks. Before composing each slide, let's properly define the content and structure of the deck.

2.1. Talking points

Insert a new slide at the beginning of your deck. In this slide, we will list all the talking points to be covered.

Start with the core ideas around which your project is built. That's usually the problem you want to solve, the product you want to bring to market, and a couple more insights.

Then go through the list of typical talking points of a startup: Mission/Vision, Problem, Solution, Product, How it works, Persona, Benefits, Case Study, Business model, Market, Why now, Competition, Traction, Team, Milestones/Roadmap, Funding. Leave out those that are not relevant for your project.

The end results looks something like this:

2.2. Main & Appendix

Distribute each talking point in the appropriate slide of the ghost deck - a few words per slide are enough.

Then, separate the main deck from the appendix. The main deck consists of ~10 core slides. The appendix is all the rest and may be used to answer Q&As or to beef up up the main deck for further, in-depth conversations.

I insist: the details about your glorious product features and masterful go-to-market strategy will be just fine in the Appendix section. Keep it simple.

2.3. Slide titles

The title drives the key point of the whole slide in one line. That's why it should be formulated as a proper sentence with a subject and a conjugated verb. In consulting gibberish, we call that an "action title".

For example, if you are raising $3M to go to market, the title of your "Funding" slide could be: "We are raising $3M to go to market". It's that simple.

Do that for each slide. Don't waste too much time finding the perfect title: you're gonna iterate a lot anyways.

2.4. Supporting elements

Next, give credibility to your titles. Why should the reader believe you? What elements can you provide that support your statement? Marketing people call that the "reason to believe".

That supporting element can be a number (revenue, market size…), testimonial, chart, analysis, etc. The supporting element should be perfectly aligned with the key message. Don't claim something you cannot prove.

For now, write down the supporting element as 1 to 3 bullet points per slide.

At this point, you should have a main deck of ~10 slides, and a bunch of appendix. Each slide contains a decent title and up to 3 bulletpoints as supporting elements.

You've got content, time to make it pretty.

3. Compose your slides

This section focuses on composing slides visually i.e. communicating your message in a clear and impactful way through the use of layouts, graphs, illustrations, etc.

3.1. The Rule of Thirds

By default, follow the Rule of Thirds.

The Rule of Thirds is a simple yet highly effective way to organize information on a slide. You see it all the time in startup pitch decks.

To learn more about visual composition, check out this page. That's where I got the illustration above, by the way.

3.2. Advanced layouts

Sometimes, the Rule of Thirds is not enough and you get stuck. You want to express an idea, you could write a paragraph about it, but you don't know how to communicate it visually.

That's where you have to start stealing inspiration.

I have put together a free directory of 1,000+ slides from famous decks - including Coinbase, Buffer, Airbnb. More importantly, I've categorized them by slide type: Market, Competition, Team, etc. This allows you to build great slides super fast.

Let's say you can't come up with a great layout for your Market slide. Check out the Market slides of other decks, find your favorite, then mercilessly steal it for your own use.

Rinse and repeat as needed. :)

3.3. Graphs

Chances are, your deck includes bar charts, mekkos, and the obligatory pie chart. Here are a few tricks to make your graphs stand out:

DO NOT copy-paste a graph from a report or a market study. It's ugly. Recreate it.

Remove gridlines

Remove vertical axes and add labels - unless clearly inconvenient

Round up numbers. Use the function "=round(REF, -n)" to do so.

Remove legends when redundant (e.g. already in the horizontal axis)

Use your company's fonts and colors

Add a title and a subtitle if needed

Add the source somewhere on the same slide

As a general rule, your graphs should "stand on their own" i.e. they should be understood by anyone who reads your deck without any sort of explanation.

If you need to display complex graphs, my go-to add-in is Thinkcell for Powerpoint. You probably won't need it at seed round, but just in case, Thinkcell made my life brighter in my consulting years.

3.4. Illustrations

If you use Slidebean, you natively enjoy droves of high-quality illustrations so you don't need to worry about it. Jump to 3.5.

Otherwise, here are my go-to places for free, high-quality illustrations:

For photos, go to Unsplash and Pexels

For drawings, go to Undraw and OpenPeeps

For icons, go to Nounproject and Illustrio

3.5. Presentation deck & Reading deck

As annoying as it is, you'll need two versions of your deck. One to be read and one to be presented.

Having said that, you don't need to MAINTAIN two versions of your deck.

I usually start by creating the reading deck. Meant to be shared by email and read by the recipient without me being there, it includes quite a bit of information and up to 4 levels of font sizes. That's the only deck I maintain and iterate on.

When I need to pitch my deck in person, I just make a copy of the reading deck and remove the text in smaller font sizes. All those details, that's what I am going to speak about - and I want the audience to focus on me, not read the slides behind me.

Removing extra details also makes space for bigger visuals. The people in the back of the room are thankful.

On that topic, BaseTemplate provides both a presentation and a reading version of their pitch deck template. To my knowledge, they are the only ones who put in the effort, so kudos to them.

4. Optimize your pitch deck

Even after following all the recommendations above, your deck will still suck. You have to spend some time optimizing before pitching investors. Here's how to do it.

4.1. Expectations

Investors are creatures of habit.

When they open a deck, the first thing they do is scanning for signals. Is your TAM above $1bn? Is your MoM MRR growth double-digit? How big is your moat? Each slide is basically a litmus test against a pre-established framework.

You may not like it, but these are the rules of the game. Therefore, it is your duty as a founder to make sure that each one of your slides meets or exceeds investors' expectations.

Thankfully, investors being creatures of habit makes them highly predictable. Their expectations are always the same. Zero originality. So you can easily learn about them. I wrote a playbook on this, available here. Check it out.

Whatever you do, don't lie. Never lie. Your reputation is worth more than any slide.

Having said that, opinions are a dime a dozen. Accept feedback gracefully, then apply discretion. More importantly, get multiple opinions.

4.4. Iterations

That's the single most important point of the whole post.

Your deck is not finished when you start meeting investors. Actually, it's the opposite.

Once you start pitching investors, you get onto a learning curve that you need to climb as fast as possible. Start by pitching the investors you want the least, then move up your order of preference. Leave your ideal investors last.

After every pitch, make sure to incorporate relevant feedback to your deck. Think about it: an investor is the best pitch deck consultant you can ever find. Make the most of it.

Again, not all feedback is good feedback. Investors are not always right. Use your judgment, filter out noise, retain signal.

4.5. Versioning

One last piece of advice. If you've got to iterate, you've got to learn to use versioning.

Versioning is a feature commonly found in Google Slides, Powerpoint et alii. As its name indicates, versioning automatically saves and manages older versions of your deck, so you can return to them weeks or even months later. Very convenient if like me, you are prone to second thoughts.

On top of that, I like to manually create copies of my deck every time I make a major change. The older versions go into an "Archive" folder. After 6-month fundraising, I have reached version 13...

Conclusion: a good deck doesn't make a good startup

A deck can convey your vision better. It won't make your startup better. If the basics are crap, it will show. 

Build a great startup first, a great pitch deck second.

I hope you found this playbook useful. As a reminder, you can check out this article on the best template for pitch decks and that one on startup financial models.

Don't hesitate to share your best practices in comments. I'll update the playbook accordingly.

Author: Stéphane Nasser