Creating a winning pitch deck, part one

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In a pickle trying to make pitch perfect pitch deck? Feeling confused, concerned and a little bit clammy? We’ve got your back. Read on to find out the secret sauce behind really bloody good pitch decks.

What is a pitch deck?

We don’t want to patronise you, so if you’re totally au fait with pitch decks, feel free to skip this intro. But if you’re coming into this post devoid of any pre-existing presentation bias, a pitch deck is a kind of presentation designed to persuade a prospect to buy into a product or service (in this post, we’re going to call this “the product” for clarity).

Pitch decks can be part of the sales process at any point in the funnel. They can be used to warm up an icy prospect, qualify a toasty lead or cinch the deal with a red-hot whale of a client. Identifying precisely how you intend to use your pitch deck is step one to making a good presentation, since the ingredients in an emailable intro pitch will be very different from a presented exec-level deck.

What are the qualities of a good pitch deck?

Every product’s pitch deck should be unique. But all good pitch decks share some general qualities. They are:

  • Clear – with all extraneous fluff mercilessly canned
  • Engaging – both visually and verbally, with attention-holding design incorporated into every slide
  • Storified – with a carefully-crafted narrative flow holding the messaging together
  • Articulate – addressing their audience’s challenges and presenting the product’s solutions
  • Value-led – clearly defining a brand’s elevator pitch rather than relying on nice-sounding but meaningless copy

All good pitch decks need all these components, but it’s not enough just to cram all these things into a PowerPoint, choose an AI-generated Microsoft template and call it a day. Before you get anywhere near putting words on a slide, you need to have a solid handle on the story you’re telling.

The power of a good story: using narrative techniques to craft a winning pitch

Okay, we harp on about storytelling in pretty much every one of our posts, but just because you’re sick of hearing about it doesn’t mean it’s getting any less important.

To learn more about the specifics of using traditional storytelling tactics to craft narrative, check out this blog post, where we cover beginning with a hook, introducing the Hero & the Villain, the power of a midpoint twist, and how to finish strong.

It’s pretty comprehensive, but one thing it doesn’t cover is the narrative arcs you should be choosing between before you make a start on your presentation creation. There are six three-act arcs we rely on, and they’ve all got their own particular benefits and drawbacks that make them subtly suitable for different scenarios.


The Hero’s Journey

Probably the most well-known narrative arc is The Hero’s Journey. Examples include Star Wars, Harry Potter, The Wizard of Oz and The Lord of the Rings (although you could argue that Tolkien actually uses all six arcs across the trilogy).

  1. The Hero hears the call
  2. The initiation begins and the problem is confronted
  3. There’s a heated battle between Hero and Villain, after which the Hero emerges triumphant and heads home for a nice cup of tea

Overcoming the Monster

toy shark

Next up we’ve got Overcoming the Monster. Examples include Jaws, The Terminator and Jurassic Park.

  1. The Hero discovers the Villain
  2. The nightmare begins and the tension ramps, the Villain begins to seem insurmountable
  3. The Hero finds the strength to overcome the Villain and emerges victorious

Rags to Riches

princess castle

Third is Rags to Riches. Examples include Rocky, The Princess Diaries and Aladdin.

  1. We open at a low point for our Hero – this could be emotional, vocational, fiscal or something else entirely
  2. Our Hero begins to rise against all odds
  3. This is where we see the highest point of tension with a climactic battle, then our Hero comes away victorious

Sparklines

greyscale photo of people protesting hate

One of the less familiar arcs is Sparklines. Examples include Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech, and (more tenuously) The Truman Show and 1984. The three act structure is less crucial here, as Sparklines relies on the power of paradoxical contrasts to heighten an audience’s emotive response. Sparklines is often overlaid with a secondary arc, and used as a structure for the opening hook.


In Medias Res

pulp fiction graffiti

One of our favourite narrative arcs to use in a deck is In Medias Res. Examples include Forrest Gump, Pulp Fiction and Memento.

  1. We begin in the heart of the story, hooking the audience by creating a huge curiosity gap
  2. Jump back to the real beginning and start retelling the story
  3. Bring the audience full circle, working through the story until the info given in Act One makes sense

Man in a Hole

photo taken from bottom of well

Last up is the Man in a Hole narrative arc. Examples include The Shawshank Redemption, The Silence of the Lambs and The Pursuit of Happyness.

  1. Open with the Hero at what they think is a point of success, only for them to realise that they’re actually perilously close to failure
  2. The Villain draws the Hero down into the depths of despair
  3. The Hero rises to actual, hard-earned success

Depending on who you talk to, there could either be loads more narrative arcs than these six in use across the stories we tell, or the very idea of an identifiable and replicable narrative arc is disingenuous rubbish.

Like any other technique you can lever into your creative practice, narrative arcs are a framework that you can choose to utilise or ignore as you see fit. If you think the idea of fitting your presentation story onto a pre-formed frame is unnecessary then feel free to not do that thing. But we happen to think that working within creative constraints can lead to some of our most inspired output.

And who knows, formally reframing your pitch into one of these classic three-act structures might just highlight a missing ingredient that could transform your deck from dreary, drab and dull into take-my-damned-money compelling.

Crafting an argument

So you’ve got your arc nailed down, now you need give some thought to how you’re going to overlay your argument onto those acts. For the sake of clarity, “argument” doesn’t always necessarily mean a combative conversation. In its purest form, an argument is simply the transmission of a viewpoint – which is exactly what you’ll be doing over the course of your deck.

The great-great-great-(etc.) grandfather of arguments is Aristotle, and we’re still using the three-part argument framework he developed in the 3rd century BC. We talk about this in more detail here, but here’s a quick and dirty breakdown if you’re too lazy (or too time-poor) to read a whole other article.

Pathos (etym. pathos, meaning “suffering, sensation, experience”)

Incorporating pathos into presentations means tapping into the emotional resonance of your slides to make your argument more persuasive.

Logos (etym. logos, meaning “reason, judgement, understanding”)

Bolstering your argument with logos means backing everything up with rationality and logic to cultivate a level of trust between you and your audience.

Ethos (etym. êthos, meaning “custom, habit, disposition, character”)

In presentations, use ethos to establish credibility so indelible that you’re the authority on whatever topic you’re talking about.

Combine these three elements to fashion unignorable orations. Or, at the very least, to efficiently make your presentations maximum engaging.

Design matters: using visuals properly

Speaking of engagement, the visual design of your presentation obviously plays a massive role in how immersive your audience’s experience will be. So, to round out part one of Creating a winning pitch deck, here’s a rundown of our top presentation design principles:

1. The KISS principle (i.e. keep it simple, stupid)

Keep your slides as simple as they can be. Don’t overload them with too much text, brash graphics, or overdone animations. If your key messages are having to compete for audience attention, they’re going to get forgotten.

2. Readability

Consider visual accessibility when you’re putting your pres together. Use big fonts and high-contrast colours to ensure every slide is digestible. Tools like this Colour Contrast Checker (https://colourcontrast.cc/) are dead handy if you’re feeling uncertain about your palette.

3. Consistent, clean, clarified

Before you get going, take a min to update the PPT system colours/fonts to match your brand – that way you’ll know that every slide will be on-brand with minimal effort. Make sure you keep the copy tonally consistent too, and the messaging in-line with your wider brand voice.

4. If in doubt, skip the animations

Animations and transitions can be really effective tools to up the visual interest of your decks. But if you’re plastering animations across every slide, you’ll distract the focus away from your content. And you’ll end up with an unsendably gigantic file too. If in doubt, axe extraneous animations.

5. Show don’t tell

Search for ways you can visually demonstrate some of your pitch info instead of spelling it out. Find a balance that blends rich graphics and snappy copy to keep your messaging memorable and data digestible.

Of course, none of these are hard and fast rules. You do you, we’re just giving pointers. Although they are rooted in some pretty extensive experience. Make of that what you will, and check back here in a week or so to get the rest of the pitch deck lowdown.

What’s coming up in part two?

In part two, we’re going to delve a little deeper into a bunch more tips and tricks to help you create a winning pitch deck. We’ll talk about:

  • Fine-tuning audience personas (including a free link to the Future Present virtual whiteboard template for you and your team to use)
  • The double-edged sword of using on-slide data
  • Handling objections: addressing concerns and overcoming resistance
  • Encouraging adaptability
  • Closing the deal

We know, we know – you can hardly contain your excitement.

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