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The Problem With Pitch Decks

by David Brock on October 23rd, 2015

I’ve seen thousands of pitch decks.  The vast majority are horrible.

There’s the corporate vanity deck.  It always has a lot of slides.  Usually it mentions the customer name in about 3 places, on the cover slide, the second to last slide, and the last slide.  The rest of the deck is all about the vendor.  You are regaled with size, locations, financial performance, logos of customers, and all sorts of stuff telling the customer how wonderful they are and why the customer would be a fool to buy from anyone else.

There’s the product presentation deck.  These are huge decks, usually each slide is done in 12 point font, because they have to tell you everything about the product and how wonderful it is.  Here too, the customer name is usually on the first, second to last and last slide, but the rest is about the products.

If the customer has days to waste, sometimes the corporate vanity deck and product presentation decks are combined.  This is where the term “Death by Powerpoint” was created.

Lately, we’ve become a little more sophisticated with our messaging–we created decks filled with Insight.  They’re actually focused on the customer, their needs, their problems, opportunities for them to improve.  We want to be customer focused, we want to demonstrate the depth of our knowledge, and we want to teach them.

We rehearse an polish our performance in delivering the Pitch.  We know when to pause, how to provoke, when to add humor.  We even practice our “ad hoc” pitches on White Boards, perfecting our artistry in delivering the pitch.

This last version of pitch deck is far preferable to the former.  But it also has the same problem as the others.

The problem with pitch decks of any sort is they absolve the sales person and the customer of the responsibility of having a conversation.

The engagement in a highly interactive pitch resembles a ping pong game–Pitch-response, Pitch-question, Pitch-response, and on and on.  The sales person presents data or a point of view, the customer responds in acknowledgement or asks questions, but there is no real engagement.  Data is shared, insight is shared, but it’s very structured and stilted.

Conducting a conversation mandates engagement of all parties–by definition, otherwise it’s a monologue.  If we engage our customers in conversations each person has a responsibility for the success of the conversation, each person becomes invested in the conversation.

We can’t really fake conversation, that is if we are really listening, present, paying attention and engaging.

But since engagement–at least deep engagement isn’t a mandatory part of the Pitch Deck, we or the customer can fake it.

Consider walking into the room with a proposed agenda–or agree on the agenda at the outset of the conversation.  Beyond that, take paper, pencil, two ears, a brain, a sincere interest in learning, engaging, sharing, listening.

As elegant as our Pitch Decks are, however customer focused they may be, however well rehearsed they are, they don’t hold a candle to a conversation.

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  1. Martin Schmalenbach permalink

    Great Dave!

    Individual client contacts, you know, the human beings, particularly like it when they feel truly listened to by other humans – they develop a stronger affinity for that particular person compared to others who don’t seem to listen.

    How much real listening does a client contact perceive he or she gets when the sales person turns up and ‘delivers a message’, especially around a pitch deck?

    How much real listening does a client contact perceive he or she gets when involved – nay, engaged(!) – in a sincere conversation about what truly matters to them – particularly around a whiteboard, flip chart or even a blank sheet of paper? Certainly a LOT MORE than the pitch deck approach, methinks.

    How much of that co-developed(!) ‘message’ are they going to argue with after? NONE – it’s THEIR message!

    How much likely are they to advocate for and share that message, being to move other influencers and key decision makers towards acting away from or out of their current status quo…? A LOT!

    I’m not against pitch decks, but I see them as being a SUPPORT to, not the FOCUS of, a conversation way down the decision making process, about which options to select… we still need engaging presentations around info/knowledge etc that perhaps the client contacts don’t yet have – but that’s not what the first half or 2/3 of the engagement must look like if we’re to truly help the client deal with a business level issue – and remember if we don’t achieve this, then we’re unlikely to get any return…

    So I have a real hang up about messaging, and delivering messages. This is one area where I wonder if I part company with the CEB in intellectual terms – they were talking about having message teams to create the messages, and having certified messaging consultants – over my dead body! I’m trying to encourage folks to have a conversation, not hide behind a message and pitch deck somebody elsewhere created! To be fair I know this isn’t quite what the CEB intends, but sometimes words and labels are everything, and I think this is one of those times.

    Stop messaging when you’re interacting with a human being – have a conversation – messaging is what you do in your web site and emails when it isn’t possible to have a conversation, it’s what you do to see awareness of your existence, and probably needs to involve a few messages that are unlikely to change much or often – why does that need a message team and certified message consultants?!

    OK, rant over – you know I feel strongly about this Dave – I’m hoping that sharing my perspective here may prompt others to share – I may be wrong about this and very happy to learn and correct/be corrected, so looking forward to an equally impassioned counter point to pop up on this thread!

    • Martin, great comment and thanks for inspiring this post. I think there’s another side of this that’s possibly more important. A pitch deck let’s the customer off the hook. It absolves them of responsibility to be deeply engaged in the conversation.

      Have you ever noticed there are customers that take control during a pitch, they want to be deeply engaged in a conversation, so they force the sales person off the pitch and into a discussion. They get the sales person off the pitch and into the conversation. It’s a blessing when that happens, but too often the customer doesn’t do that–or we don’t let them do that.

      So we have to set up the “pitch” as to drive the conversation. For example, my “pitches” are rarely more than 3 slides. I may want to frame a few issues, but leverage them to drive the conversation. And very often, I may never even show the slides.

      Thanks for really driving this thinking Martin!

      • Martin Schmalenbach permalink

        Bang on!

        And so often the sales person is afraid for this to happen, sees it as a failed meeting, because they didn’t get to talk about what THEY wanted to talk about – usually the solution/product… when in fact it IS a blessing – now you’re talking to the client about what THEY want, about what is important to THEM – dismissing this is the worst kind of folly…

        That being said, the DISCIPLINE of working through a process for developing & creating a good pitch deck is a great way of preparing to have a conversation, especially when that process also gives plenty of emphasis on developing what I call ‘high quality questions’ – these are questions that change the state of mind of the other person – the precursor to the “Ah-ha!” moments…

        This way, if you need the pitch deck (yes, just a few slides as an AID!) – then you have it, but the preparation has enabled you to be fluid and fluent, to have a natural, seemingly unscripted conversation… and this way the client gets to feel truly listened to!

        • As usual, and it’s quite a scary thought, we are in wild agreement! It is frightening isn’t it 😉

  2. Doug Schmidt permalink


    Another great post on “Pitch Decks”.

    You mean I just can’t send out a few tweets, use social selling as a cure all and pitch my products. Come on Dave. You mean, I have to put down the cell phone, stop texting and pay attention, engage in conversation, listen. You mean I have to do the hard work and realize there is no easy, get quick sales tool. You mean I have to leave my bloated ego at the door, develop “smart thinking” teams and interact with my customer/prospects and develop conversations that are productive, insightful and meaningful.

    My good friend, a colonel in the U.S. Marines, always emphasizes you can’t tweet trust, confidence and conversations. My good friend would agree with you!

    Your insights are right on and appropriate. “Smart Thinking” companies with “Smart Thinking Habits, Tools and Strategies” realize that to build trust and a customer’s confidence you have to develop the culture and framework

    • Well Doug, I was thinking about saying something about the Easter Bunny or Tooth Fairy………

  3. Chuck Sena permalink

    it’s almost as if you and Anthony Iannarino coordinate your posts. He had one just the other day that compliments what you suggest –

    Both of you agree – the deck is a tool to support the conversation and exchange of ideas.

    • Chuck: I guess I’d file that in the “great minds think alike category.” Didn’t realize he’d written that. Regards, Dave

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