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Stacie Shaw is the Founder of Pitch Deck Fire, where her company creates engaging and effective pitch decks for startups. As Stacie says, she is a startup storyteller! Entrepreneurs need to realize that when investors are hearing your pitch for the very first time, they are hearing it with their more primitive reptile brain and not their analytical brain. This is why you need to make your pitch incredibly simple and easy to understand, even if what you do is a complex.
Pitch Deck Fire – Interview with Stacie Shaw
Hello and welcome to The Successful Pitch podcast. Today’s guest is Stacie Shaw who is the founder of Pitch Deck Fire. She is a startup storyteller specializing in pitch deck design and presentation which we all know is so important. Stacie, welcome to the show.
Hi, how’re you doing, John?
Good. I’m so happy to have you here because as you know the podcast is called The Successful Pitch and you and I are on the same page of one of the things that it takes to have a good pitch, which is storytelling.
But before we get into that, I want to hear about you, Stacie. Did you know you wanted to be a storyteller? How did you get to be an expert on pitch decks?
Yeah, that’s great question. I’ve worked with several companies as a leader as well as a founder of startups and found very quickly in building those companies that how you tell your story about your startup really affects how people get energized and excited to be a part of that story. It helps with getting funding, it helps with getting clients, it helps with getting your employees. How you actually tell your story really affects your success. I figured that out pretty quickly in the businesses that I’ve worked with.
Where did you go to college? Did you know when you were in college this is what you wanted to do? Tell us of a situation or one of the companies you worked on where you went, “I’m going to go out and become my own entrepreneur.” I want to hear that journey.
I went to college at Emory University and studied business. I knew I really enjoyed companies, understanding how they worked, the market that they were in, and how they grew their companies. When I started my career, I worked at really large corporations as a management consultant and figured out pretty quickly that I wanted to focus on smaller companies, more growth-oriented companies.
From there, I launched companies of my own, learned how to grow a company, and how to tell that story from a marketing perspective within the company as well as to potential investors and things like that. From my experience, I have experience in design and in business strategy, and the combination of those two things is really what led me to pitch decks and to Pitch Deck Fire because it’s a great balance of my right and left brain.
There’s an art to it, there’s an art to storytelling and to design of course. On the business side of it, it has to be very closely linked with that when you’re doing a pitch. When you’re pitching, it is about your company and about the details of what’s going to make you successful, but there’s that combination of the art. I think it’s the two of those together that really drew me to launching Pitch Deck Fire and to helping all the clients that I’ve helped.
I love to have conversations about left brain, right brain, creative side versus analytical side. Most people are dominant in one and very uncomfortable in the other, don’t you find?
I do find that for sure, and I find that a lot with my clients. Definitely, I think people tend to self-identify as one or the other. Whether we’ve been told that we are one or the other, you’re either a right brain or a left, and you’re either type A or type B. I don’t know that that’s the case, I think we all have a little bit of both but definitely people put themselves in that bucket. I think there’s always an opportunity to be a little bit of both and it to bring both to the table in everything that you do.
Let’s talk about the importance of how something looks when you first see it. If you put yourself in the shoes of an investor for example and they see 2,500 pitches in a year, and pick 25 to fund, they’re looking for a reason to saying no. If you have a typo, ugly slides, too many words, etc., you’re automatically a no, don’t you think, Stacie?
I think definitely that’s the case. The professionalism of your slide, of your slide deck, of your pitch deck, of everything you come to the table with, is really important. Having even tiny mistakes like that, a typo here, too much text, anything that makes it look less professional, while it may not register in an investor’s mind, they may not see, “They misspelled that word, that’s why I’m not going to go with this company or invest in this company.”
It will be a factor and it will be something in the back of their mind. It won’t be a conscious thing but it will be in the back of their mind to where it will add up all together and make them feel a certain way about you or your pitch, perhaps a negative way. That’s the danger of those little mistakes.
On your website, Pitch Deck Fire, you have a great section in here about, what is a pitch deck? Let’s start there. What should people include and what design makes it appealing?
A pitch deck is pretty simply a visual representation of your company. You might be using it to pitch to an investor for funding, you might be using it to send to, let’s say, an accelerator for an acceptance to an accelerator. You might even be pitching to get clients, it may not even be for funding. It could be, “This is my service offering and we want to bring you on board with that service offering.”
It’s just a visual representation of your company. It’s a way to put a story behind who you are, what you bring to the table, what’s unique about your service offering, your product, whatever it is that you do, and why they should go with you. There’s always an ask or something you’re seeking with a pitch deck. With funding, perhaps it’s, “I need a certain amount of money so I can grow my company.”
For clients, it’s, “I want you to come on board. I want to provide my services to you.” There’s always that ask and it’s a challenge with pitch decks to make sure that the focus of the pitch deck is on your company and not on that ask. The ask is after they’ve fallen in love with you.
It’s like you have to date somebody first before you get married.
Exactly, for sure.
There is a big difference in my mind between a pitch deck for an investor and a pitch deck for a customer. Sometimes I see a lot of people thinking, “I’ll just pitch them like I do a customer.” I’m thinking, oh my god that’s a big mistake because the investor is not a customer. They’re not going to buy the product, you don’t have to go into all the details of a product demo that a potential customer might need to see, correct?
Definitely. When I lump them together I’m saying they’re both pitches but they’re definitely very different in terms of what you include, what you don’t include and the flow of how you go about a pitch. To be honest, all companies are going to have a very different pitch. It’s going to always depend on your audience. The audience is absolutely key to how you put together your presentation.
Because some audiences are going to care about some information and some are going to care about very different information. If it’s an investor, definitely they’re going to care about things that are much more macro about your company than a potential client is going to care about.
A potential client wants to know that you know your stuff and you can provide the services that you say that you can provide. A potential client is going to want to know what about the market and what are your competitors and how is it that you’re going to excel in that macro scale of things, the bigger scheme of where you play with the company?
The other thing I think is so important is if you’re given ten minutes at an angel group to pitch, you probably don’t want to have more than ten slides, right?
Agreed. The less is more. In fact, one of the things that I think about a lot when I’m building decks for my clients and helping them put together their story is that we … This is going to sound really scientific for a minute here and I promise I’ll get back to Pitch Deck.
We have three parts to our brain. We have the reptile brain, which a fight or flight part of our brain, worries about things that are too complex and those things scare it. We’ve got our mid-brain and then we also have our pre-frontal cortex part of our brain. That’s more the analytical, the reason part of our brain. The part that understands complex systems that can put together essentially stories or analysis.
What I find really interesting is that when we build a pitch deck, we’re using our pre-frontal cortex part of our brain. We’re going to analyze our company, we’re going to try to put together that story. But I think what we’ve failed to realize is that we’re actually pitching too.
When someone’s listening to a pitch deck, they’re listening with their reptile brain, especially in the beginning of a pitch deck. Things that are very complicated or messy, especially messy on the slides, heavy, heavy information early in the presentation is a really dangerous thing because we’re going to scare away our audience.
I love that.
Clearly they’re not going to fight or flight and run away, but definitely it’s that part of their brain that’s listening to us. We have to keep that in mind we’re putting together our decks.
Our brains don’t want to work that hard. That’s the bottom line.
They’re like, “Don’t make me think this hard. Just tell me simply what it is you do. I don’t want to have to understand the idiosyncrasies of artificial intelligence in the first five seconds of what you’re talking about. You will overwhelm me.” I like to say the confused mind always said no.
That’s the danger of confusing people. Everyone thinks they’re so special. “What I do is so complicated.” I’m like, “Then our job is to make it simple.” It doesn’t mean it’s not sophisticated, it just means you have to really understand it well, according to Einstein, to be able to explain something simply.
Exactly. Simplification does not mean that the company is simple. It’s the way we explain it is simple so that we can get people on board with the complicated idea. We’re just simplifying how we talk about it. That’s really, really important with pitch decks because you have very limited attention span and time to get someone’s attention, regardless of who they are, but especially a VC or an investor who is looking at a lot of these companies. It needs to stand out and the best way to do that is to make sure you’re talking to the audience correctly. You’re not overwhelming them with information. You’re being simple and explanatory early on in your presentation. It’s absolutely key.
What’s going on here is the investor, the listener, is listening through their reptile brain of fight or flight. “Is just too hard to understand or I’m going to check out, or is there something that’s grabbing my attention?” You, as the presenter, the founder, are also having your fight or flight response kick in usually because you’re nervous.
That’s definitely true.
What are your tips of overcoming nerves when you’re presenting?
That’s a great one. It’s definitely the biggest challenge I think you have when you’re pitching, is the nerves. Because it feels like this massive position that you’re in. You’re in front of someone very important doing something very important for your company. You want to do it right. There’s a lot of pressure built up onto that. I think there’s a couple things that I recommend to my clients that will help you with those nerves, help you be more confident.
The first one is the most important one, it’s just practice, practice, practice, practice, practice as much as you possibly can. In front of other people that are not a mirror, that are not family and friends. Try to get in front of other people to really get the right level of practice because you’re not going to be as nervous in front of a mirror as you are in front of a VC or in front of your friends and family or your co-workers. You definitely want to put yourself in as close a position as you can to really get that practice down. I think it helps you be much more confident when you get into that position because you’ve done it before.
That’s the tip. Because most people go, “I know I’m supposed to practice.” Before we get to the other tips, because I want to hear them all, let me just ask you a little about this practicing. Because sometimes, I have people say to me, “John, I don’t want to sound like a robot, I know what I’m doing, I don’t want to practice too much.” Do you think there’s such a thing as practicing too much?
I would say yes and no. No, there’s not a thing as practicing too much. That is not a thing, but there is practicing too much in the wrong way. If you wrote down verbatim every exact word that you wanted to say and then practiced that over and over again, you will sound like a robot. That’s not the best way to practice.
What I recommend is when you practice, write down roughly what you want to say, then turn that into bullet points and then take those bullet points and just remove all the ones that are not key. Just leave in the most important bullet points so what you’re left with is a skeleton framework of what it is you want to say.
Because you know your company and you know your stuff, and if you don’t say it the exact same way every time, that’s not a big deal. It’s whether you cover the points you wanted to cover in the right order. That’s what’s key. Practicing with all the words figured out, that’s bad. Don’t do too much of that. You will sound like a robot. If you practice those bullet points and you say it a little different each time that you practice, you’re going to sound conversational. Like you know what you’re talking about and you will not fall off track and you won’t sound like a robot.
I love that distinction Stacie, thank you so much for that. What else do you have for us about overcoming the butterflies in our stomach?
There was a study awhile back about your body language and about how your body language affects how you feel. We know that how we feel affects our body language. If you’re standing very close, that means that you were feeling maybe sad or inside yourself or depressed maybe or something.
It’s actually true the other way around as well. The way you stand has a lot to do with the way you feel. It will affect the way that you feel in the opposite direction. One of the things that this study had basically recommended or had proven was that before you do a public speaking engagement, to feel more confident, there’s something called the superman pose.
I know it well, I love it, yes.
You know, it good. You stand in the superman pose. You stand feet apart, hands on your hips, up tall, keep your back up straight, like Superman or Superwoman. What that will do is it will give you a boost of confidence. I recommend doing that before you pitch, maybe in the bathroom, maybe in the parking lot before you go in or something like that. Just to put your body and your mind in the right frame so that you have the confidence in your presentation.
Love it. We’re going to practice in front of strangers, we’re going to do the superhero pose. Any other tips to overcome nerves?
Where possible, try to stand. Like you said before, we have our reptile brain that goes in a fight or flight mode as soon as we start a presentation. Especially in the beginning because all of a sudden you’re there and there’s just this rush of adrenaline through your body. When you stand, your diaphragm is positioned in such a way that you can breathe more easily and deeply. When you do that, you will not have the same, I would say, stutter and shakiness that comes with that adrenaline rush at the beginning of your presentation.
Sometimes it’s not possible. Maybe you’re at a lunch meeting. You’re not going to stand in the middle of a restaurant and talk to your investor. But a lot of times you’re standing in front of a presentation. Make sure you stand. It might feel awkward, everyone else is sitting and you’re the only one standing in this room. When you stand, it just does a lot for the way you’re going to speak and project and it’s going to calm your nerves quicker in the presentation.
Great. Now that we’ve talked about the importance of how you present something, let’s dive into one of your big areas of expertise, which is the graphic design element. What mistakes do you commonly see that people have on their pitch decks before they work with you?
Biggest mistake is always too much text or too much information, too many bullet points. There’s just a lot you want to say and it feels like it all has to be on that slide, and it doesn’t. If you know what you’re talking about, which you will when you practice, you won’t need to use your slides as a cue so you don’t need that as a crutch. A lot of people I think put a lot of that information on the slide as a crutch. From a design perspective, less is always more.
The biggest thing I recommend is removing as much text as you possibly can from slides. The overall presentation and design of the deck needs to support and not detract from your presentation. If you have too much on that slide, like I said before, reptile brain goes crazy, doesn’t like it, they’re not looking at your slide anymore. They’re not even listening to you anymore. They’re just thinking about something else completely, looking out the window, whatever it is. It needs to support and not detract. It needs to be more simple. That’s the biggest thing I see, is just too much text, too much information.
Also, I’ve seen on some of your samples that you are very consistent, and I love it, with the color schemes you use throughout the whole deck.
Definitely, yes. Everything should be very customized and branded to your company. It’s that thing I said earlier about that little bit of professionalism. It’s not that they’ll choose you for those things. It’s just that all added together, it feels good. The investor inside, they’re going to feel good, it feels consistent, it feels like I get it, I get the vibe of this company. Because you already have a brand. Most companies do.
If you bring that branding to your pitch deck and you keep it really consistent throughout, then it’s just going to feel good to your audience. It’s hard to explain, but it’s unconscious. They feel the consistency in the design you’ve put together.
Now let’s talk about how some people think one pitch deck fits all. There’s a pitch deck that you present and then there’s a pitch deck you send.
Yes, definitely. I think that’s a huge trap and part of why we get those decks with tons of content on them, way too much content, is that people think you have one pitch deck. You may have more than one pitch deck. It may be the same pitch but you have different versions of that deck that you’re going to use for different things. Sometimes, you’re going to be presenting in front of your deck and you’re going to be standing there and talking and so it needs to support you, it can have less information.
Other times, you need your deck to stand on its own, when you’re going to send it ahead of maybe leave behind after your presentation. You want to give them one that has more information in it. Often what I do for my clients is build two decks at the same time. The one you’re going to stand in front of and the one that can stand without you.
I also know that you do some market research to get to the right data points. Can you talk about that?
Definitely. Some of my clients don’t have all the information that you need from a perspective about where your market is, how you compare to your customers and how you fit. It’s a very important piece of when you’re talking to potential investors, is how is this company is going to be successful.
Part of that is talking about where we play, what is the space we play within. We help with that. We have clients that come in and they have a great product but they don’t quite know maybe the size of their market or what is feasible for them to acquire as a part of that market in terms of market share.
Maybe they understand who their competitors are but don’t have a clear understanding of maybe how they’re better. I hope most companies always have some idea of it, but we definitely help with getting that more formalized so that we’re telling that story and making sure that we really explain the full story of how that company is going to acquire customers and grow within the market that they play.
One of the questions that people always gets asked, and if you haven’t even thought about it you’re in trouble, you become the deer in headlights, I call it, which is what’s your barrier to entry from competition or a bigger company getting more funding and duplicating what you’re doing. All of those things that I think really need to be thought out and have some answer.
Definitely, they do. It’s something that, at least when I help the clients that I work with, that come to it with all sides. I have the business background to where I can help describe the market that you play. I can help determine how do we talk about those barriers entry. How do we bring up within this story all of these details, what’s important to talk about from a business strategy, or how the business is formed, business model, whatnot, perspective, in addition to the design aspect.
I think one of the challenges that my clients have faced before working with me is one of two things: either they’re trying to do it themselves, which is, I commend entrepreneurs, they always have that optimism that they can do everything. As an entrepreneur in the past with other companies that I founded, I was the same. I tried to do everything myself.
I think you don’t know what you don’t know and it’s definitely something to keep in mind. Someone else who is more experienced in something like pitch deck design can help with preventing you from hitting those points where you don’t know what you don’t know and prevent you from making mistakes that you might otherwise make if you try to do them yourselves.
We talked about at the beginning the importance of storytelling. So you have a case study or a story you can tell us of how you took someone’s original pitch and turned it into a story that got them some funding?
That’s a good question. I do it a lot with a lot of my clients in terms of helping to get that story together. When I say storytelling, what I’m really talking about is we’re putting together this pitch, we need to excite and interest our investors and our audience. Doing that is going to be very different for company A versus company B, depending on how that company is organized or what it is that they bring to the table that’s unique.
Say I had a company who had a really amazing team. They are just so experienced in the industry. They’ve been in there 20 years. They know what they’re doing. That’s what really makes it so that they could capture this market. They’re the exact right team for this market. The way I tell their story might focus on that, it might start with that. The flow of that presentation would start with, “We know what we’re doing.” That’s how we tell that story.
Whereas if I had another company, company B, they may not have the team. Maybe they’re newbies and that’s not the thing that’s special about them. What’s awesome is they have come up with this idea that takes over this niche market, this problem that nobody ever thought of before but when you say it, it’s like, “Yeah, that totally should exist.” I know you’ve heard of some of those, John.
Those kinds, I’m going to tell that story differently. We’re going to focus a little bit more on that problem statement, that this is the visceral negative current state that we’re in, this is the challenges that this specific group faces. Then go into how amazing our idea is and what the future state is. That juxtaposition between negative current state and positive future state is a really important one when it comes to storytelling. Talking about that for that a company would be the way I would go about that story.
When you’re working with people, do you first say, “Let’s get the content down and then work on the delivery,” and not try to do both concurrently?
That’s a good question. Most of the time yes, because I think it’s good to know what you are going to cover before you talk about how you’re going to cover it. You have to get yourself to ground zero to, “This is what I’m wanting to convey,” before you start to talk about about how we’re going to go about conveying that.
That’s a lot of what I do when I’m building decks with my clients, is we need to figure out what we know first, figure out what we need to know, what we need to add to that in terms of content. From there, we can talk about how do we do that story, how do we define the flow of this presentation so that it really engages our audience.
Nice. Are there any books about life, business, pitching, anything at all, that you want to recommend to our listeners?
Definitely, I like Pitch Anything. It’s a good book that I have read in the past. They talk a little bit about that reptile brain and how we are pitching to the reptile brain. I think that’s a really good one. From just more of a business standpoint and a life standpoint, there’s a good book called Essentialism. It’s by Greg McKeown.
What I like about Essentialism is the basic premise of that book is do only that which is essential. Decide what it is that you want to do, let’s say with your life, or it could be honestly, with your pitch deck. Do only that which is essential. All the other stuff is extra and it’s too much. If you focus, you’ll be more successful.
I love that. I once had an investor on The Successful Pitch tell me, “So many people come to me and they’re trying to boil the ocean.” I thought, what a great analogy. You need to focus.
There we go. Stacie, it’s been a delight. How can people follow you, learn more about how to get a good pitch or how to practice with you?
You can follow me on Twitter. I’ve got Pitch Deck Fire on Twitter. We’ve got Facebook and LinkedIn. Check out our website. We have articles that we post all of the time. I’m actually working on an article right now called Your Pitch Deck Should Be Like A Mullet. If you’d like to know more about that, that will be on my blog as well.
Nice. Your blog is on your website?
On the website.
On your website, fantastic. Stacie, I can’t thank you enough. We’re going to remember that we need to practice in front of strangers, not just the mirror. I love that take away. Thanks, everybody.
Thank you, John.
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