What’s the right order for the slides in your pitch deck?

There’s a godawful number of pitch deck templates out there, and there’s one thing that most of them get wrong: They forget to mention that the template is (meant to be) flexible. For some companies, using the template as-is works, but for others, it gives you a story that doesn’t flow, at best, or doesn’t work, at worst. In my teardown for Encore’s pitch deck this week, for example (TechCrunch+ subscription required), the company starts with a team slide — that’s bold, and it works for some companies, but not for others.

In broad strokes, the content that goes into pitch decks is pretty much the same — that’s sort of the point, and it helps investors quickly get a comprehensive overview of the company they are looking at. You know how it goes: What’s the problem, how are you solving it, how big is the market, what’s the competition, what’s your team, how much money are you raising… the usual.

But if there isn’t a fixed order, how do you determine what the right order is?

When I review pitch decks, whether for TechCrunch, with the various accelerators I work with or in my capacity as a pitch coach, I often come across an awkward problem. Many, probably most, of the people I work with haven’t given enough thought to the order of the slides. The crucial thing to keep in mind is that you don’t tell your story so they match your slides; it’s the other way around. You use the slide to support and enhance your story.

The first slide is the answer to “What’s unusual about this company.”

That means two things: If your slides don’t work, or you can’t get the computer to connect to the screen (it happens more than you might think), if you for some reason can’t share your screen (thank you Zoom…), or if you for some other reason can’t use your slides, you should have a good enough handle on your story to be able to present without your slides. More importantly: The slides shouldn’t be the focus of your attention: Your story is. If your Keynote or PowerPoint is stealing the show, you’ve already lost. The investors don’t need to have faith in your presentation wizardry; they need to have faith in you and your capacity to run a company.

In other words: Lead with your strength. Investors see tons of pitches every day, and the temptation is to write you off before you’ve really gotten started. To catch their attention, your first slide should be something that surprises and delights. If you have incredible traction, lead with a graph showing that. If you have the only team that could possibly run this company, that’s your first slide. Do you have patented technology? Is the problem unusual and interesting? Is the market surprising and growing rapidly?

The first slide is the answer to “What’s unusual about this company.” From there, tell the story the way you would tell any story — find a red thread that you can follow all the way through to its conclusion. A fundraising pitch isn’t a linear story, so there are no rules to where you can start — as long as it supports a compelling narrative arc that you follow from beginning to end.

There’s no “right” order to the slides — but there is a wrong way. If you find yourself jumping back and forth in your narrative a lot, you’ve found the latter.

So how do you fight the right order? Write the titles of your slides on Post-its or index cards, hand them to a friend who hasn’t heard the story of your company before, and just pitch your friend the way that feels the most natural. Ask your friend to keep track of what order you told the story, and to put the index cards in that order. It feels kinda weird at first, but it works the vast majority of the time. The one gotcha here: If you find yourself circling back to the same part of the story (say, market size comes up more than once, or you keep coming back to your product), it’s a sign that you need to tidy up that part of the narrative. “Split slides” — i.e. where you tell part of the, say, go-to-market story at one point, and another part of the story at another — means that you need to consolidate. It gets confusing for the listener to keep track of the message you’re trying to get across.

Keep an eye out for my weekly series of pitch deck teardowns to learn from some incredible example decks. And if you’ve already raised money, why not submit your own deck to be shared with the startup ecosystem?