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Pitch Deck Design


Nobody likes fugly

We covered the headlines on substance in the last playbook, but now let's look closer at the magic of making it look beautiful.


PART 1 -- Design theory 101

One of the questions I'm often asked by scaleups I work with is whether a pitch deck's style and design are critical to success.

I get it – when you're working 100-plus hours, you don't have time to mess around with fonts and resizing images.

However, look at it from the perspective of an investor. If you've not put care and attention into your pitch deck, there's the risk that you don't put care and attention into your business.

And while a beautiful presentation may not necessarily get you the funding you need from a VC, a fugly presentation may lose their attention for good.

In the last article, we looked at what to include in a pitch deck presentation. Now let's see how we can style your content to increase the chances of getting that all-important funding.


The ten elements that drive harmony

Even if you intend to give your pitch deck to a graphic designer, it doesn't hurt to know about the ten elements that will transform a so-so deck into a superb one.


1. Colour

When you're creating a pitch deck, colour is your friend. You can use it to draw attention to crucial information as well as reinforce your branding. However, it's important not to go OTT.

If you don't want it to look like a unicorn has vomited over your slides, you need to understand colour theory or at least hire someone who does.

Colour theory and the colour wheel can help determine which colour combinations are right for your pitch deck.

First, you take the three primary colours: red, yellow and blue. Between these colours are the secondary colours which are created when the primary colours blend together; green, orange and purple. Finally, you have the tertiary colours, which are a combination of the primary and secondary colours; red-orange, yellow-orange, yellow-green, blue-green, blue-violet and red-violet.

There are 13 colours to think about – including white which you should treat as a colour too.

You can use colour theory to pick colours that work well together.

For example, triadic colours are bold and confident (e.g. Burger King, Pepsi), while analogous colours (e.g. BP, Red Bull) are more subtle.

You can take it one step further and add black to these colours to be more serious and professional, or white to feel more soft and calming.

I'd recommend sticking to four colours or less. Any more than that, and you will need potential investors to wear sunglasses when they read your pitch.


2. Contrast

Contrast occurs when you have two elements on a page that are different. This can add excitement to your slides and mean they don't feel too samey all the way through. You can also use contrast to help viewers quickly identify and pick out a main point.

Ways you can use contrast include:

  • Colour – use contrasting colours on the colour wheel to make key points stand out

  • Size – make the most important thing on the slide bigger and bolder than everything else

  • Typeface – different font families can help highlight essential information, like sans-serif and serif fonts. Make sure they're very different though; nobody is going to be squinting to see the difference between Arial and Calibri

  • Highlighting – leave the Stabilo Boss in the pencil case! By highlighting, I mean using bold, italic and underlining to make information stand out. Keep this technique to a minimum – about 10% is enough

  • Overlays – if you're overlaying text on top of an image or watermark, contrast the background with the text significantly to avoid conflicts or visual noise


3. Repetition

Did I say repetition? By repetition, I mean reusing the same or similar elements through your design. This can add structure to your presentation. That's what repetition is!

Ways you can use repetition include:

  • Repeating visual elements without your document. You don't have to use a different colour, font or layout on each slide. You can even repeat visual elements across multiple documents to create continuity

  • Visual cues – for example, using your logo across each individual slide for uniformity

Repetition isn't just about visual elements. It's about using the same tone of voice and wording to create an all-inclusive experience.

The best way to ensure repetition? By putting together a style guide.


4. Arrangement

Life is all about relationships. The relationships between you and your team, you and your family and hopefully, the relationship between you and your investor.

This applies to pitch decks too. Nothing should be placed on your slides at random – everything should connect to everything else.

If an element doesn't visually link up with something, think about whether you really need it in your deck.


5. Why?

You need to put yourself in the shoes of your audience. When designing your pitch, it's imperative to understand how they think, feel and do.

After all, if they don't care about your product or service, the chances of getting that all-important investment are pretty much null.

Your presentation needs to appeal to all human dimensions: credibility, emotion, logic and timing.

Think about how you can apply these persuasive strategies to your pitch deck and delivery. For example, the right choice of wording, imagery and colour can draw your audience in and make them more likely to request that second meeting.


6. Organisation

This is all about arranging the information on your slides, so it's easy to read and understand.

The average investor spends three minutes and 44 seconds reading a deck, so you need to make sure critical information is easy to skim over. 

This means no walls of text or fluffy content.

Top-load your information – have the most critical information available first and work your way to the least important content.

We'll look at how to structure your pitch deck in more detail in the next article.


7. Negative space

Negative space (sometimes referred to as white space) is the part of your slide that has no content on it.

While filling your deck with as much information as possible may be tempting, negative space can be helpful as it makes the rest of your information easier to understand.

When you're devising elements for your pitch deck, consider the negative space that is created as a result.


8. Typography

Typography is the text that appears on your pitch deck and how it is arranged. Everything from font, size, colour and justification comes under this category.

I've seen many scaleups use the default font on their computer for a pitch deck. While this is okay if you're dashing off an email or sending an invoice to a customer, you can do so much more here.

Here are my top tips for choosing typography that complements your slides:

  • Stick to two fonts unless there is a good reason not to – one for headings and one for body text. Any more than this, and you run the risk of your pitch deck looking cluttered

  • Choose a font that reflects the personality of your business. You'd be surprised what a typeface can say about you

  • Make sure your font is readable. While that embellished script looks lovely, it's probably not suitable for your deck. Don't forget you can increase font size and line spacing to make your font of choice more legible


9. Iconography

Icons are one of the simplest ways to add structure and sizzle to your pitch deck. Think of them as waymarkers guiding your audience to the most important content.

For example, you can use icons as pictograms in charts and graphs or visual anchors for written content or statistics.

You can create your own set of icons, or alternatively, there are collections you can purchase.

One word of warning here: Make sure any icons you use have value. You don't want your slide deck to start looking like the comment section of a TikTok video.


10. Photography

A well-thought-out photo is a powerful way to convey a message, reinforce your brand and strike emotion in the hearts of your audience.

Audiences are 60% more likely to remember communications with images than ones without, so it's an excellent opportunity to dust the old DLSR off!

Here are some hints to help you choose the right photo

  • Your own images are best, but stock images are better than nothing at all

  • Use the right resolution – 72dpi for digital and 300dpi for print. That way, you won't max out your investor's inbox or end up with pixelated or distorted images

  • Make sure all your images use the same lighting and colours for consistency


Design Summary

Consider your crash course in graphic design complete! Feel free to make and print out a little certificate to put on your wall.

In conclusion:

  • Use colour wisely

  • Introduce contrasting elements to make your slides pop

  • Repeat, repeat, repeat

  • Arrange your content strategically

  • Think like your target audience

  • Organise your deck, so it's easy to read

  • Negative space is your friend

  • Use the typography that best represents your scaleup

  • Don't underestimate the power of icons

  • Choose the right photos for the right purpose

In the second part of this playbook, I'll be going into more detail about structuring your slides, so the content flows.


PART 2 -- Writing great simple slides

Do you know how Gordon Ramsay tests his potential chefs? He asks them to make him scrambled eggs.

It doesn't matter if they've worked in the best restaurants in the world; if a chef can't handle the fundamentals, they're out.

The same logic needs to apply to your pitch deck skills. If you can't rustle up a basic slide, you're not going to get far in terms of investment.

Don't worry; I'll teach you to create a simple deck to keep your investors engaged. Unfortunately, I can't help you with the scrambled eggs, but I know a guy who can.


There's no shame in a standard design

I've worked with many scaleups, and many founders fall into the trap that they must create an all-singing, all-dancing pitch deck.

Think animations, slide transitions and every single slide having a different look and feel. Yikes, I've got a migraine just thinking about it.

While you can certainly ensure your pitch deck has a fantastic design, a standard slide format offers several advantages for both you and your audience:

  • The repetition promotes audience comfort and allows your key messages to sink in more quickly

  • The format blends into the background so your audience can focus on your key messages

  • It helps you write, structure and create your pitch deck faster

Think a little bit of sparkle rather than a ton of glitter when developing your deck.


The anatomy of a standard slide

A slide has several elements – it's highly unlikely you'll use them all at once, but it's good to know when they may come into play.


A headline

Each slide needs to have a headline – this focuses attention on the page's main idea and lets your investor see at a glance what the slide is about.

I've seen many scaleups use heading titles that describe the page's content like 'our target audience', 'the problem' or 'financial information'.


Use your headline to say something useful or exciting instead.

For example, rather than say 'the problem', you can say 'users can't find the services they need'. This is good as it is written from your audience's perspective rather than yours and sounds a lot more appealing.

Your headline needs to be meaningful and punchy. Avoid empty statements, crap business jargon and passive sentence structure. If you can put 'by zombies' at the end of your headline, it's time to go back to the drawing board.

Ideally, your headline should be one line. Two is acceptable, but don’t make a habit of it.

You can use a sub-headline if you need to add extra context, but this is entirely optional.


A kicker box

Sometimes called a 'call-out box', a kicker is a section at the bottom of each slide that summarises the key message. It can also be used to answer your audience's questions.

If you know that your investor will say 'yeah, but…' at the end of a slide, the kicker is a fantastic tool that can add power to your presentation.

You don't need a kicker on each slide, just the ones where you know there will be pushback. Think of a potential question your audience may ask and answer it as briefly as possible.


Bullet points

Bullet points can help break up your text, but like all things in life, you can have too much of a good thing.

  • Bullet points should be limited to six items. If you have more points, split them into separate groups

  • Second-level bullets are okay if you need to break your bullet points down further

  • Third-level bullet points are fine if you really must

  • Anything more than that…

  • … And you might need to rethink your slide design


A tracker

A tracker can be helpful for visually showing where you are in the presentation – this is totally optional.


Logo, legals and page number

These can be useful for reinforcing your brand and your contact details. 

While you don't need page numbers, they can come in handy if you have more than ten slides.

If you do decide to use these, work them into your slide master, so you don't need to add them to every individual slide.


Other design hacks always worth following

Hopefully, you should have a better idea of arranging your slides to optimum effect by now.

Here are some of my final hints and tips for whipping your pitch deck into shape:


Use 16:9 slides rather than 4:3

Wide-format slides look more modern, and best of all, you get more space. A win-win all round.


The master slide is your friend

A slide master defines the overall look of your pitch deck – any changes here will be automatically updated on the rest of your slides.

A master slide can help ensure consistency and align your pitch deck to your style guide and website.


Stay within the architectural margins of the slide

This not only makes your slides appear cleaner but reduces the risk of critical elements being cut off or being made illegible


Claim your sources

If you include any stats or data, it's important to state your sources. The last thing you want is for an investor to ask where you got your facts from, and you get thrown.

You can include your sources at the bottom of your slide. Alternatively, include the information in your appendix if you have one.


And if in doubt…1-2-6-10-20-60

… Stick to my six classic slide writing rules of thumb.

  • Have 1 main message or concept per slide

  • Stick to 2 lines of text maximum in any element

  • Use no more than 6 main bullet points on any list or slide

  • Aim for less than 10 slides in any presentation or section

  • Keep a font size of 20 points minimum

  • Limit the number of words per slide to 60


In summary: Keep things simple

Your pitch deck is there to encourage your investor to book another meeting with you. You don't need to reinvent the wheel.

It's better to be consistent than it is fancy. Studies have shown your audience needs to see a message at least seven times before it sinks in.

Keep your background, font size and colours the same. This will keep your pitch deck looking crisp and professional and increase the chances of that all-important investment.


What's next?  Getting the visuals of each slide right  

In my next PlayBook I'll be looking at how to complement your clean pitch deck structure with the right visuals.

The start-up pitch deck presentation slide design guide. From Jonathan Bullock, ex Google Chief of staff & SoftBank COO

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