What if Max Martin Designed Your Pitch Deck?
Applying hit songwriting rules to your startup pitch
What if a hitmaker like Max Martin produced your next pitch deck?
Let me add some context.
According to metrics from DocSend, VCs spend on average less than 3 minutes to review pitch decks, a figure consistently decreasing since 2018.
That’s roughly the duration of a song. And when it comes to hitmaking, the Swedish producer might have the formula. Since 1998, Max Martin has written or co-written 25 Billboard Hot 100 number-one hit songs. He is the songwriter with the third-most number-one singles on the charts, behind only Paul McCartney and John Lennon.
Here are some of his biggest hits to refresh your memory.
Even though songs and pitch decks seem diametrically opposed, I believe that there are techniques that startup founders can borrow to catch investors’ attention.
Let’s explore some of them.
Aim for memorability
It's incredibly important to me that you remember a song right after the first or second time you hear it. That something sticks to you, something that makes you feel, 'I need to hear that song again.' That's fundamental.
The same applies to your pitch; first impressions matter. Your goal isn’t to get an instant term sheet but trigger the interest for more views. DocSend data confirms that investors spend more time on subsequent visits to decks they end up funding.
…Baby One More Time is a song about obsession, and it takes all of two seconds to hook you, not once but twice, first with the swung triplet “Da nah nah” and then with that alluring growl-purr that Spears emits with her first line “Oh, baby, bay-bee.”
Most songwriters start with the lyrics. But Max Martin usually begins with the melody instead, where vocals are meant to serve the melody. Thus, the hook acts as an anchor to intrigue listeners early in the song.
In a pitch, the hook is your story.
People remember stories better than facts alone; it’s called the narrative effect. So don’t start designing your slides before you have absolute clarity on your story.
If you feel stuck, Lenny Rachitsky shares an excellent framework in this post.
He recommends articulating any story around this structure:
Situation. What is the state of affairs today?
Complication. What has changed that requires action? What's wrong with the status quo? What is the problem?
Resolution. How will you fix it? What do you recommend/need to resolve this complication? Answer-first followed by supporting arguments.
A great pitch is not hitting the right buzzwords or showing the right credentials. A great pitch is a strong conclusion that is supported by uncontroversial, logical, achievable statements that require no magical thinking.
Get to the chorus
In most of Max Martin's hits, the chorus hits before you’re 50 seconds into the song.
In a pitch, the chorus is your product.
Data collected by DocSend validate that companies that successfully raised from investors tend to highlight their product near the beginning of their deck.
Create a sense of familiarity
One theory of songwriting is that you can also sing the chorus melody as a verse. For instance, take ‘I Wanna Be Your Lover’ with Prince. The verse and chorus of that song are exactly the same. But as a listener, you don’t really notice since the energy of the chorus is completely different compared to the verse. Once the chorus comes, you feel like you’ve heard it before. And you have! You’ve heard it in the verse. It automatically creates a sense of familiarity. Prince does this a lot. ‘Let’s Go Crazy,’ same thing. I’ve used this trick a few times myself.
What Max Martin describes is called the familiarity bias in psychology; people have an innate desire for things they're already familiar with.
And there are several ways to include familiarity in your pitch deck:
the concepts you use (MVP, GTM, TAM…)
how you describe your business model (SaaS, DTC, Marketplace…)
how you introduce and define key metrics (CAC, LTV, MRR…)
the users/customers you highlight (known profiles, influencers, and brands…)
how you visualize information and data (2x2 matrix, timelines, cohorts…)
Using these common patterns will help investors to understand your business and save them some precious effort to retain critical information.
Less is more
Add one thing at a time, like in a movie. You cannot present 10 characters in the first scene! You need a balance at all times. If the verse is a bit messy, you need it to be less messy right after. It needs to vary. It's all about getting the listener to keep his or her concentration.
He describes yet another psychological principle: cognitive load. Cognitive load is the amount of working memory resources required by someone to process information.
Whether it’s a song or a presentation, a common pitfall is to overdo. That’s why many producers often describe themselves as reducers.
In this guide, the team at Y Combinator shares 3 rules for clarity in pitch decks:
Make it legible. Think about how people might consume your presentation. Whether it’s at an event or on mobile, they should be able to read it.
Make it simple. One idea per slide, that’s it.
Make it obvious. Remove the guesswork by being explicit.
For inspiration, this Crunchbase article is full of good (and bad) examples.
This one is not directly connected to Max Martin but his mentor Denniz Pop.
In 1992, he discovered a young band: Ace of Base. One of their members recalls the process behind launching their breakout song.
As we were nearing the final version of All That She Wants every day we experimented with rhythms and then we went to a club, played it, and checked how many people started to dance with it. If it was some part where people didn’t dance as much, then we knew we had to change it.
Ulf Ekberg, Ace of Base
No, I’m not recommending you to hit the club with your pitch deck, lol.
But there are several ways you could test what resonates or not in your pitch:
Send different versions to investors you’re not targeting for feedback.
Tweet (or share on social media) bits of your deck and find what sticks.
Try a message testing tool like Wynter.
With millions on the line, it could be worth the extra effort.
Hitmakers like Max Martin use proven storytelling tools and psychological principles to capture attention and keep listeners engaged. These techniques apply to designing pitch decks too and, generally speaking, to any form of communication, whether you’re working on a presentation, a landing page, or ad copy for your startup.
While there’s an unlimited supply of pitch deck templates available online, these are not the best starting point. Instead, spend more time on crafting a compelling and memorable story to introduce your product and strive for clarity by removing any elements that don’t contribute to the latter. And obviously, test and practice!
I think Max Martin would agree that there is no golden rule or magical hack.
A great song won't make an average singer sound like Adele.
And a great pitch deck won't turn a mediocre product into a unicorn.
If you’re in the process of raising capital, good luck! I hope this article was valuable. If you need feedback on your pitch deck or strategy, don’t hesitate to reach out 👋
See you next time for an article about international expansion.