Jan 13, 2021
Keane Angle
Louise Saludo

30 Startup Experts Share How to Get the Problem Slide Right

The Problem slide is one of the most crucial, standard slides in a fundraising pitch deck. Here's our analysis.

In the world of pitch decks, the Problem and Solution slides are critical to get right.

The Problem slide demonstrates a clear issue that no other business is solving, while the Solution slide reveals that there is a new player in town who’s hellbent on solving this problem.

When written correctly, these two slides act as a powerful hook to the reader or investor which draws them into the rest of the deck.

If the Problem and Solution slides fall flat, so does the rest of it.

At STORY, we create pitch decks and the bulk of our discussions in the writing process always revolves around these two slides. In particular, the Problem slide is the trickier of the two to get right.

So, what constitutes a great Problem slide?

A quick Google search reveals dozens of varied opinions across consultants, entrepreneurs, and investors. Since we prefer informing our opinions with data, we sought to quantitatively analyze these qualitative opinions to better outline the criteria for a great Problem slide.

Getting the Problem right: our analysis of investor and consultant recommendations

In the past, we’ve focused our research and analysis on opinions and content from verified investors only. However, this time we wanted to cast a wider net and understand the larger conversation being had by consultants in this space as well. Lastly, we also wanted to compare the two different sources to highlight any major differences.

In turn, we once again underscored the ever-present contrast between what investors and consultants think a great pitch deck should look like or should include.

The good news? This article puts some clarity around these sometimes conflicting opinions.

This article:

  1. Will highlight what a great Problem slide should and shouldn’t have
  2. Demonstrate the differences in recommendations between pitch deck consultants and investors

With this in mind, we sifted through search results and found multiple pieces of content from articles to published books. We then tallied and analyzed each piece of content and pulled out all of the key recommendations to define the criteria for a great Problem slide.

In total, we collected 168 recommendations across 15 pieces of content from investors and 15 from startup consultants – 30 total opinion leaders. We then took these 168 recommendations and then further distilled them down to eight categories:

  1. Empathize with the Target Market
  2. Provide Data and Facts
  3. Use Short and Powerful Writing
  4. Show Social Proof
  5. Demonstrate Goldilocks Specificity
  6. Exhibit Commercial Viability
  7. Highlight Poor and Current Alternatives
  8. Separate the Problem and Solution

The good news is that despite the disparity of recommendations, both consultants and investors agreed on the top three recommendation categories.

However, each placed a different emphasis on individual recommendations, as highlighted below:

For this article, we will focus on these top three recommendations which made up 60%-70% of all recommendations from both investors and consultants.

Let’s delve into each.

#1 Empathize with the Target Market

According to both investors and consultants, the best way to get the problem statement right is to first deeply empathize with the target market. Founders must first put themselves in the shoes of the target they’re going after and see the problem through their eyes.

How the problem statement is written should reflect this deeply empathic worldview.

Empathizing with the target market is the most mentioned recommendation from both investors and consultants with 33% of total mentions. However, consultants placed a greater emphasis on empathy (38%) where investors emphasized it less so (22%).

We took this to mean that empathy is required, but there’s more to a great Problem slide than just empathy alone – in other words, it takes more than just flowery language. We’ll highlight additional criteria in the next sections.

Empathy is all about knowing who the target market is, what their pain points are, and what they want. Both investors and consultants mention that it’s crucial to make these pain points as relatable as possible.

Moreover, investors and consultants stress the importance of ‘humanizing’ the Problem through personal anecdotes and brand storytelling. Ideally, both parties suggest ‘painting a picture’ through storytelling so investors understand the need for the solution offered.

Some of the investor and consultant recommendations included:

  • Emphasizing relatability
  • Understanding the target market, their aspirations and what struggles prevent them from achieving them.
  • Using relatable situations or stories that investors can connect with

Keynote speaker, writer, and consultant, Jurgen Appelo, discusses the importance of the Problem slide in his book Startup, Scaleup, Screwup: 42 Tools to Accelerate Lean and Agile Business Growth. Appelo writes:

'[Founders] must be able to explain, to yourself, to customers, and to investors, which problem you will solve or which opportunity you will address. What are people’s top frustrations or aspirations? What is their job to be done, and what is the major pain or irresistible gain, and why are current solutions inadequate?’

Here are a few examples of Problem slides that do a great job of showing empathy:

  • Almanac Seed Pitch Deck

Castle Seed Pitch Deck

#2 Provide Data and Facts

Data and facts are the next most important criteria for a great Problem slide according to the investors and consultants in our research. Here, opinion leaders recommended that founders use hard data and statistics to demonstrate the extent and severity of the Problem.

Specific recommendation examples included:

  • Using big data points
  • Using 100% verified claims
  • Avoiding debatable arguments or questionable statements

Using data to demonstrate the magnitude of the Problem and how it affects the target market earned 21% of mentions from both parties. In a reverse mirror image to the previous category, our results showed that this category was mentioned by investors (27%) more than consultants (14%). We took this to mean that investors value data and facts more than consultants who tend to push more for empathy and good storytelling. To us, this makes a ton of sense and validated our thoughts on the subject.

Reinforcing the problem statement with data helps answer key questions: Is the Problem scalable enough that potential consumers are willing to pay for the solution? Are the startup’s claims accurate and credible? These are just some of the questions that need to be answered under this category.

Melinda Elmborg, a former VC at Daphni claims that founders should…

'Always want to use data to make the pain you explain irrefutable. Very few startups do that so here you can really stand out. The data that you share can either come from market reports or interviews/surveys that you’ve done with potential customers. Don’t forget to link or explain how you discovered the findings.’

Clarification note: everyone agrees showing data is important, but for the Problem slide, that data should focus on demonstrating the severity and reach of the Problem. Showing how big the target market opportunity is should be shown on a separate slide. The Problem slide should be reserved for focusing solely on defining the Problem.

We’ve added in a few examples of Problem slides that use data well below:

AceUp Seed pitch deck

7 Bridges Seed Pitch Deck

#3 Use Short and Powerful Writing

In the world of pitch decks, short and concise copy is king and both investors and consultants agree. Don’t take 25 words to say something when it could likely be said with half that many. Under this recommendation category, founders are advised to get to the point, be specific, and not embellish on the details too much.

Additionally, startups should avoid writing long paragraphs of text, using jargon and complicated vocabulary, and having the Problem span across many slides.

Examples from our research included:

  • Writing short and concise copy
  • Not using jargon
  • Discussing the Problem in 2 slides or less

Consultants and investors also agree that the Problem should take no more than two slides to explain. If founders need 10 slides to explain the Problem, it’s highly likely that they haven’t obtained a deep enough understanding of the Problem and there may be a need to revisit #1 and #2 above.

Simple and powerful writing is the third most mentioned recommendation with 15% of mentions among both investors and consultants. However, professional writing is more mentioned by consultants (16%) than investors (10.3%). This means that consultants place more importance on concise writing vs. investors who are mostly focused on data and market size. Again, to us this makes sense, as consultants are usually the ones writing or advising on pitch decks anyway.

Investors and consultants cite that during presentations, members of the audience can only either listen or read— not both. So, both parties recommended to keep extra details as talking points as opposed to putting them on the slide itself. This ensures that investors are paying full attention to the speaker during the presentation instead of reading.

Powerful writing comes from keeping it simple. Our research reveals that startups are discouraged from using jargon and complicated vocabulary and founders are highly encouraged to ‘stick with an eighth grade understanding’ when writing slide copy.

Corporate Strategy Mentor Nalin Signh discusses the importance of writing concisely in his book, Get Funded Now: Find Out How: From Self to Professional Funding

‘If your product solves a problem that most people can relate to, make sure you paint a picture for your potential investors. Ideally, this element of brand storytelling will somehow serve as an underlying catalyst for the creation of your service or product. But be careful to avoid cheesy references or embellishing details too much.’

Consultant Adam Fard also reiterates that founders should…

‘Focus on two or three points. Try not to overcrowd this slide with bullets. Short and straight-to-the-point sentences that are devoid of niche jargon will sound more compelling and will help your audience engage with the issue at hand.’

Here are a few example Problem slides that demonstrate clarity and brevity:

UpTop Seed Pitch Deck

AirBnb Seed Pitch Deck

Contently Series-A pitch Deck

Honorable Mentions

Beyond our top three most common areas, we wanted to make sure to mention the remaining 30% of recommendations.

So, here they are.

#4 Show Social Proof

Investors and consultants believe that social proof is a powerful tool that can also be used in creating an effective Problem slide. Under this category, investors and consultants highly encourage startups to use real life testimonials from the target market. Both parties believe that social proof further humanizes the Problem slide. This category garnered 8% of mentions; of note, investors (10%) slightly favored social proof more than consultants (6%).

#5 Demonstrate Goldilocks Specificity

In the story of Goldilocks, the main character tries to find a bowl of porridge with just the right temperature—not too hot, not too cold… just right. Striking the same balance is necessary when writing the Problem slide.

This means:

  1. Copy should be long enough to provide necessary information, but short enough to accommodate the audience’s short attention span.
  2. The Problem needs to be big enough to demonstrate commercial viability, but detailed enough to outline a specific target market.

This category included 7% of total mentions from both parties.

#6 Exhibit Commercial Viability

Is the Problem presented relevant enough that a specific target market is willing to pay for the solution? Does the Problem have a potential for further commercial growth? Answering these questions garnered 6% of mentions.

#7 Highlight Poor and Current Alternatives

Are there other solutions that fail to adequately solve the Problem? If so, it’s best to include them in the Problem slide according to investors and consultants in our study. This category got 6% of mentions from investors and consultants.

#8 Separate the Problem and Solution

Most investors and consultants in our research believe that the Problem slide should only focus on the Problem. Under this category, founders are encouraged to keep the Problem slide only about the problem and to leave any copy about the solution for the Solution slide. That means no teasing the solution in the Problem slide. This category had 4% of mentions.

Wrapping up: Creating an effective Problem slide entails empathy, data, and good storytelling.

Despite the disparity of opinions, investors and consultants both agree that the Problem slide is one of the most crucial aspects of a pitch deck. The majority of opinions from investors and consultants were aligned around the idea that empathy is key. They also rallied around the importance of data and good storytelling and copywriting.

Here is a full breakdown of our findings and how investors and consultants differed:

At the end of the day, businesses exist to solve a pain point of a particular target market – and make money in doing so. This is one of the reasons why the Problem slide is one of the most important sections of a pitch deck: the extent of the Problem highlights the potential for the business’ further growth.

Finishing your pitch deck? Read our latest study on the business model slide or our study on the competition slide.

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