If not bullet points, then what?

dan roam

Last week I had two mentor meetings, and the contrast between the two was quite interesting to me and I hope to others.

In the first meeting the two founders came in and after we all introduced ourselves one of the founders said, “We have a pitch deck, but we would much rather have a conversation, is that ok?” As the lead mentor, I couldn’t say “sure” fast enough. As I’ve posted elsewhere unless you are presenting to a large number of people a conversation is almost always better than a pitch. Why? Because founders don’t learn anything while they are talking and that’s what they do when they are presenting.  Founders learn from asking good questions, answering questions, and getting feedback from the mentor team. So score one for team one!

We then proceeded to an excellent conversation which surfaced a large number of issues for the venture, which one founder very carefully noted.

When the meeting concluded I asked one of the founders if he could email me their pitch deck, as I’m always interested in seeing how ventures present themselves. He responded, “Well our deck is designed as part of a presentation, it wasn’t built to standalone.” Score two for team one! As you’ll find in many posts in the PITCHING category on this blog, there is a very big difference between pitch desks designed to support a presenter and pitch decks mean to standalone.  Often your web site can serve as the communications vehicle that stands alone, unless, of course, if you are in stealth mode and don’t want to put things on the Web competitors may find.

The second meeting also included two founders and two mentors. This time the team wanted to show us the pitch deck from the get go. And it violated virtually every rule of a presentation. Slides were filled with multiple bullet points, often covering several different issues. Rule one of presentation is: One concept per slide! While they had some truly first class illustrations, the bulk of the deck was all bullet points, all text. One of the team actually read each slide to us! Now I may be well past AARP age eligibility, but I can read and read pretty damn fast, and well, so long as the font size is large enough. Needless to say this presentation was tedious and it was difficult to extract the issues the team needed to address from the avalanche of bullet points. This type of deck is ok to mail, where the recipient has the time to sit down and read all these slides, but even so it could have used a good edit to make the slides far less crowded and to highlight the truly important issues.

So the question I often get is, “If not bullet points, then what?” Here’s a list of non-text elements that will require more work on your part than typing in lines of text, but will communicate at least 10x more effectively. Much of this material is taken from Dan Roam’s book Show and Tell, How Everybody Can Make Extraordinary Presentations. I highly recommend all three of Dan’s books on visual problem solving and presentations.

  • Photos and video – the old saw goes “a picture is worth a thousand words” may well be true, but if you are trying to help your audience understand a process a video is worth 10,000 words.  If you or someone on your team is a skilled photographer you might want to take your own photos. But there are plenty of photos for free on the Web. The Inc. article 9 Places to get Awesome Pictures Online For free (and Without Copyright Restrictions by Melanie Curtin is a good place to start.Don’t forget to caption your photos! One good use of video is when you have a demo or prototype which requires web access or may be buggy and prone to crash. Showing a video of the demo or prototype actually working can be a safer way to go.
  • Diagrams – There are many types of diagrams ranging from Venn diagrams to concept maps. A diagram might be the best way to communicate the key elements of your product or service. Or as I’ve seen recently, the size of your target market compared to the total addressable market. Like photos, video, illustrations and other non-text ways of communicating, diagrams can be more work than simply typing a string of text, but they are well worth the effort. Creating the diagram may even help you clarify in your own mind concepts that in an early stage company are a bit fuzzy. There’s nothing wrong with a hand drawn diagram! So long as it’s clear, simple and well labelled you aren’t going to lose points with your audience just because it wasn’t generated by a computer.
  • Charts and graphs – these may include charts you create yourself, perhaps from data you have in Excel from an experiment you conducted. Or these may be from secondary research sources, such as analyst reports. If the latter be sure to credit the source.. Charts and graphs are a great way to convey quantitative information.
  • Maps – maps can provide a great answer to the “Where” question in the important communications framework of What? Who? Why? How? When? Where? The “where” question might pertain to the location of your target customers or locations of your distribution points.
  • Timelines – startups go through phases, from idea, to concept validation, to prototype, to market validation, etc. Investors, advisors and mentors are very interested in what milestones the team will achieve in a fixed period and in what order. A timeline is a much better way to present this information than a bulleted list, as it conveys time, sequence, and order visually. Milestones can be plotted as past, present, and future. Timelines answer the important “When?” question.
  • Flowcharts – Flowcharts help clarify cause and effect and how quantities flow through a system. A good example is flow of funds, from customer to retailer to distributor to the venture, with branches for such issues as sales tax, shipping costs, insurance, etc. Flowcharts and diagrams are good for answering the “How?” question.
  • Decision trees – Startups are often faced with multiple options and need help from advisors and mentors on how to make those decisions. Drawing a decision tree which illustrates the repercussions of each decision is a great way to clarify all the “if-thens” of a startup’s decision. For example, should you go B2B or B2C or B2B2C?
  • Illustrations –  Like diagrams, illustrations are a lot more work. You may need to find an art student to help you translate your idea into a compelling illustration.
  • Animations – Animations may be the most powerful way to present your product or service, but they also require considerable graphic arts skill. Unless you have these skills yourself you’ll need to use your network or some of your cash to have an animation created for you. Depending on the tool used, it may not be that easy to make major changes to an animation, so I recommend you hold off on creating one until your concept undergoes a state change from gaseous to solid. However, I’ve seen some GIFs used in presentations lately to great effect and a GIF is nothing but a short form animation, so consider GIFs if you have a process to present.

The basic driver behind all of these visual communication types is simple: it is far more effective to show, not tell. Text has it’s place, but keep it to a single line and in large font for those middle agers in your audience.


Author: Mentorphile

Mentor, coach, and advisor to entrepreneurs, small businesses, and non-profit organizations. General manager with significant experience in both for-profit and non-profit organizations. Focus on media and information. On founding team of four venture-backed companies. Currently Chairman of Popsleuth, Inc., maker of the Endorfyn app for keeping fans updated on new stuff from their favorite artists.

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