Investors are a special type of audience. I have been creating investor presentations for my clients for the last decade, and would like to share with you some of the things I have learned along the way. The internet is full of generic advice about presentation design, so I won’t repeat it all here. Instead, let’s focus on what is special / different when presenting to investors.
Who is your audience?
Think about investors as an audience: they are busy; they receive hundreds of pitches every month; they’ve seen thousands of entrepreneurs like you; they have a decent amount of knowledge about what is going on in the market (they see companies all the time); and they usually work in a partnership with other investment professionals. All of these aspects are important for your investor presentation design effort.
Storytelling for Busy People
Great novelists and movie directors are masters at storytelling. They hook the audience, keep their attention, and might even convince them to take action / change their behaviour. Yes, “storytelling” also works with investors, but the problem is that investors are impatient and very busy.
Storytelling to impatient investors should follow the order of questions that go through their minds when evaluating an investment opportunity. And this order might not always follow the “school book” order of an investor pitch (problem, solution, etc.).
At the start, it is important to actually explain what you do and what your company is about. This sounds obvious, right? But I have seen many draft investor decks that went on and on with market context, building up the story to some great crescendo, after which finally, on page 16, the company’s basic idea is revealed. Investors don’t have time for this, and if you don’t tell them what you do, they will just continue to guess it. And someone who is guessing, or thinking about something else, is not paying attention to what you say.
So pop the suspense, and reveal your core idea on page 1. It will calm down your investor and prepare her to absorb the rest of your story. The comparable: “we do [x] for [y]” is a useful tool to do this. It gives the investor a “box” to put you in so she roughly knows what you are about. You can always elaborate and refine things later.
Dealing with the Elephant in the Room
Now that you get the basic idea out of the way, it is time again to think about the questions an investor might have. In every pitch, there is usually an “elephant in the room” – a huge lingering issue that is just waiting to be answered: the CEO is only 21 years old; this product seems to compete head on with Google; people have been trying to find a solution for mobile payments since 2001 but no one has succeeded.
Big elephants in the room require tackling early on in the presentation, or the investor will simply not pay attention to your story anymore.
Pay attention to the pace and information density
Certain elements could be crucial for your story flow, but might actually be common knowledge for an investor. Nobody will argue with you that “mobile video will be huge”. This point can be incredibly important for your pitch, but if nobody disagrees, there is no point in preaching to the converted with 20 minutes of charts full of mobile video data predictions. Put up a simple chart with the mobile video data forecast, make the point quickly, and move on, maybe even making the explicit statement “I don’t need to convince you of this, right?”. The most important part of your story just took 10 seconds.
What should your presentation look like?
The presentation document is likely to be used in different settings, some of them outside of your direct control. Logistically, it is almost impossible to maintain different versions of the same presentation for different occasions. The next best thing is to make smart compromises. Remember that the objective of any interaction with an investor is to make it to the next stage in the process. The very last step of the process will be to land the actual investment. Before that, it is just getting to the next meeting.
The first contact:
The deck you send “cold”, or ahead of a meeting will be opened without you being present to explain it. It should look professional; make very clear what you do; and intrigue enough for an investor to want to find out more. Details about the company and/or technology do not matter at this stage. Be very careful with including confidential information at this stage of the process.
The slides in this type of deck are usually, big, bold, and visual. This is usually the first part of your full investor presentation: simply copy the key slides out and double check whether they make a coherent story.
Marketing language and buzzwords? Investors see them in every investor presentation. If you use the same language, investors won’t understand what you really mean, and worse, you will sound like everyone else. It might be tricky to get the balance right: choose language that is not too generic, avoid buzzwords, but don’t go too much into detail either.
I am not a big believer in densely written executive summaries. Most busy investors won’t read them (or the introduction text that goes with the teaser presentation) but go straight to double clicking the attachment. One modification to a standard presentation format is to include some sort of “sub titles” to your slide, or a text box at the bottom of the slide in a small font, that explains the story of the chart in full sentences.
The first meeting:
That first cold deck is likely to be followed by a one-on-one meeting. The investor has read your first presentation, so there is no need to repeat the whole story. Bring your full deck to the meeting, just in case, but it is highly likely that you will have a dialogue rather than a presentation setting. When specific points come up, pull out a slide to add detail and substance.
One example could be the competitive positioning. The full detail was probably too much to include in the teaser deck, but now that the investor is briefed and you are sitting across the table from each other, it might be the right time to go over things in detail.
Meeting the partner group:
The next stage in the investment process could be the presentation to the full partner group. This is a big test for you, but also for your first contact person at the venture capitalists, who now has to defend spending an hour of all the partners’ time to listen to your idea. By this time, all the partners are probably familiar with your idea and your company.
The real reason for having you stand up and do a presentation for them is to size you up as the CEO of a portfolio company. They are considering whether you personally are a good partner to work with on the Board of the company. What you present is important, but also how you present it. How do you take constructive feedback? Are you able to sell your product convincingly? Do you bend the truth, are you honest, can you be trusted?
What if it’s a pitch competition?
You can see how the process above is the complete opposite of the approach you would use for a pitch competition with a large audience of mostly non-professional investors. In that scenario, presentations should be highly bold and visual: the slides will not be read without you being present; the audience might not have the detailed understanding of the market and the problem you are trying to solve; and your objective might not be to land that next step in the investment process. Instead it is about winning over a crowd.
This requires a highly original, visual presentation with dedicated, minimalist slides. The most important aspect of the preparation is careful rehearsal – over and over and over again, until you nail that 5 minute story to perfection. Definitely don’t put up your standard investor presentation and start improvising. Think TEDTalk instead.
How to make sure your slides say what you want to
Often I hear from entrepreneurs that they do a great job in telling the company story in person, but somehow fail to get that story translated into slides.
Here is a possible solution: record yourself telling that story to a friend. Now, create slides that literally back the story you just recorded. Stick to it and don’t deviate by going into your usual slide creation mode which you admitted did not produce any results. Listen to the recording: which points do you make in which order, and where do you need a simple diagram, where do you need a data table or graph, and what questions does your friend ask?
Sometimes that raw authenticity is the best way to get your investor pitch out. Iteration after iteration takes the spontaneity out of your story. This is – I have to admit – a big part of my role as a professional presentation designer, visualizing that first spontaneous story in the most powerful slides possible.