Spell. It. Out.
Don't make your audience guess what you're trying to say.
Being a VC involves looking at thousands of pitch decks annually. It’s a fun part of the job, but because I rarely have a founder’s voice-over while reading a deck, my interpretation of any given slide can be very different from what the founder intended.
I was helping a friend iterate on their pitch deck last week. One of their slides had a table that showed the evolution of a handful of metrics over time:
Before you keep reading, spend a few seconds looking at the data. How would you summarize this company’s performance?
Here is the dialogue that ensued between me and the founder:
Me: Is this the best way to present the data?
Founder: What do you mean?
Me: Well, it’s nice that your churn rate is dropping and revenue per user is going up, but the other data makes it look like the company is doing poorly.
Founder: It does? How??
Me: First of all, the number of new users peaked a few months ago, so it looks like growth is decelerating. Is that the case?
Founder: No. That number fell because we removed our free plan in the middle of June, so now all new users are paid users. Before, we had a lot of people who signed up on the free plan and never got serious about the product. So we get fewer new accounts now, but they are much higher quality.
Me: Ok, that makes sense. How about the customer acquisition cost? It was dropping a few months ago, but now it’s rising sharply?
Founder: That’s related to us removing the free plan. Because the value of the average user is now much higher, it made sense to have a higher budget for acquiring new users.
Me: Ah, I see. I guess I was mistaken about revenue and churn trends being weak. What about the amount of time users spend using the product? It can’t be good that your customers are using the product less and less every month?
Founder: It’s great, actually. It took us a lot of work to get to this outcome. We realized that our website was slow and that was contributing to user unhappiness. We spent the last 6 weeks making pages load 10x faster, and now users are much more engaged. Obviously that made session times drop, since users spend much less time waiting for things to load.
At this point in the conversation, I pointed out that all of the founder’s explanations were reasonable and good, and the business is doing great, but no one who read the deck by themselves would know these backstories. If data and graphics are presented without commentary, some readers will have a generous interpretation while others will have an uncharitable one.
If you want your reader to draw a conclusion, just tell them the conclusion! Don’t beat around the bush. If your data shows that growth is decelerating, or churn is spiking, or your team is shrinking, then your audience will assume the worst in the absence of more information. Given them the information they need to contextualize your data.
If I were to rewrite the founder’s metrics slide above, I’d just turn it into a few explicit bullet points:
Strong progress since April:
Dropped free tier, which doubled our per-user revenue.
Sped up our site 10x, which helped cut churn from 10% to 5%.
Revenue/Acquisition Cost rose from 2.5x to 3x. We anticipate 4.5x by EOY.
This version of the slide clearly states the things that the founder is trying to get across, and it doesn’t present extraneous information that can be misinterpreted.
Simple tips for removing ambiguity
Whether you’re writing an article or creating a pitch deck or crafting your resume, you should leave as little as possible to chance. If you suspect there’s an ambiguity, eliminate it.
The title of each slide in your deck should be the key takeaway. Replace “Traction” with “6x growth in the last 8 months.” Instead of “Our Team,” use “Rare mix of Oil&Gas + Marketplace experience.” This is a good practice for deck, memos, blog posts, etc.
For each slide, ask yourself what the worst possible interpretation would be. If your competitor had to make a damning presentation based on your materials, what would they say? How would you change your deck to ruin their attempted sabotage?
Ask 5+ people to write down their takeaways and gut reactions to each of your slides. Identify anything that seems unclear and fix it. If some people think you’re trying to say X while others think you’re trying to say Y, then the slide is broken.
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