How to give a killer demo

You’ve been there. You’re sitting in a demo where the lead engineer is presenting a new product to the customer. With laser pointer blazing, he shows off the 300 features of the new Blarney Gadget. He’s going a million miles an hour, switching between PowerPoint and the product on the screen as fast as the keyboard will allow. 50 slides later, he finally finishes, crossing the demo finish line like an Olympic sprinter. He sits down, glad the demo is over, and takes a deep breath. At this point, the audience’s heads turn slowly, like spectators at Wimbledon, to look at the customer, hoping for approval. The customer sits quietly for a moment, leans forward, and asks, “Does this have a new Blarney Gadget?”

This was not a killer demo. I’ve sat through a lot of these, and I’m sure you have too. Fortunately, you can do a few simple things to make sure your demo goes better than this. I have most experience with intimate demos involving an audience of fewer than 30 people. These suggestions work best with that kind of audience.

1. Explain the Setup

Any product worth its salt is complicated, at least under the hood. You’ve just spent a lot of time building a new product with a team of engineers. If it were simple, you wouldn’t need to do a demo to show it off. So you’ve got to explain the background. Here’s a checklist of things that you ought to explain before diving into the demo:

  • Physical configuration
    • Are there cables involved?
    • Explain how everything’s connected
    • Explain the computers involved and where they are
    • Explain all the software involved, with diagrams if it helps
  • List improvements since last time, if applicable
    • “Do you remember how the product used to do X?, and that sucked?”
    • “In the past when I clicked this button, it took 30 seconds to process. Now it’s done in 3 seconds”.
    • “Users told us that this used to be confusing. We’ve tried to make the feature more approachable and user friendly.”

2. Tell the Future

Don’t expect your audience to know whether the demo worked or not. Tell them what’s going to happen when you click that magical button, before you click it, so they can participate in the demo success when it works. Get them to feel the excitement of anticipation, and when it works, they ought to instantly think, “Yes, it worked!”, just like you do. To make this emotional connection, you have to tell the future. Here’s an example of telling the future:

“When I click this button, you will see that light blink (point at it), an on-screen spinner will begin to turn, and about 10 seconds after that, a message will appear with the number forty-two. Any questions on what’s going to happen?”

Take time to listen for questions. Make sure the audience is completely clear on what’s about to happen before you click that button. Don’t rush this.

Then, click the button.

After the process finishes, don’t jump in and say, “See? It worked.” Instead, let the audience come to that conclusion themslves. You gave them enough information to evaluate whether it worked, and if you “told the future” correctly, they will see for themselves. This way, they will believe more seriously that your product works (they verified the results themselves, after all).

3. Face Checks

Take time during your demo to make eye contact with each member of the audience, if possible. If you have more than about 20 people in your audience, you’ll have to limit this exercise. Check for the following expressions in the audience:

  • Confusion: A furrowed brow, looking downward, or a pained grimace
  • Boredom: Eyes glazed over, looking at nothing in particular, or head bobbing
  • Excitement: Eyebrows raised, lots of motion, smiling, or the “ah hah” look

If you catch someone bored or confused, it’s time to engage them. Start asking questions. If you can’t think of a question to ask, try this one:

Any questions?

Followed by a 10-second pause. 10 seconds is a long time in a demo. Count it down in your head, “10 Mississippi, 9 Mississippi, 8 Mississippi, …”

Another list of engaging questions:

  • Does this seem like a good approach to you?
  • Do you think your organization will be able to make use of this?
  • In your opinion, are we on the right track?
  • Are there any concerns with what I’ve presented so far?
  • Do you feel like there’s something we could have improved?

By the way, don’t be afraid to take the conversation in a new direction based on the responses to these questions.

You should do a round of face checks after making important points in your demo. Take a look at each face and spend about 1 second looking for the expressions listed above. Just looking at their faces can cause them to better engage in the demo. The audience needs to feel like they are participating in an interactive experience, and not just “along for the ride” like some kind of academic lecture.

4. Slow the Tempo

Presenters almost always go too fast, especially during demos. I think there are two reasons for this:

  1. They are nervous
  2. The technology is more familiar to the presenter than the audience

As a presenter, you should go slower than you think. You almost can’t go too slow. Here are a few tips:

  • Allow silent moments
    • Just look at the screen and look at the audience.
    • This will let the audience absorb.
    • Don’t fear the silence. Embrace it.
  • Ask what the audience thinks
    • If you get no answer, you are going too fast
  • Draw on a whiteboard
    • This will naturally slow things down
  • For long demos, plan regular breaks

5. Easy on the Superlatives

Avoid words like “fantastic” and “spectacular.” Let the demo speak for itself, and let the audience come to their own “fantastic” conclusions. Instead use phrases like “isn’t that neat?” and “we thought you’d like this.” If the demo is pitched properly, the audience will see how “fantastic” it is without you cramming it down their throat. If you start tossing around superlatives, and the audience doesn’t agree, it will solidify a strong opposition to your product in their mind, and they might think of you as a slimy marketing weasel.

This is one place where Steve Jobs excels. He uses phrases like, “we think you’ll like this,” and “this is really neat,” and “wasn’t that cool?” It’s startling when people get up after Steve and start tossing words around like “phenomenal” and “amazing”. When I hear words like that, I think, “hey, you just show me the product, and I’ll decide whether it’s phenomenal.”

You can use accurate superlatives like “totally new” and “unprecedented”, but be careful to stick to accurate words and don’t venture into the realm of hyperbole.

6. Repeatedly Repeat Yourself

It’s okay to repeat yourself. Don’t worry about insulting the audience’s intelligence. Most people go too fast and shower the audience with so much new information that they get hopelessly lost. Err on the side of too much repetition rather than too little. If your face checks reveal that the audience is bored, you might be repeating yourself too much, but this is unlikely.

7. Trade Vocal Cords

Don’t talk too much. It’s human nature to support ideas when you feel like you invented them. You can use this principle when giving a demo by letting the audience talk through ideas. By letting them talk, you are letting them take ownership of the product, which is a good thing if you want them to be your supporter.

Be a good listener, but be careful not to lose control of the demo.

Pay attention to industry terminology they use, and try to use the same terminology in your presentation.

I think a good ratio is about 1/3 to 2/3. You should talk about 1/3 of the time, and let them talk about 2/3 of the time. This guarantees that they are engaged, and it really helps them solidify all the concepts in their mind. As an added bonus, you just might gain an insight into how they operate, which can help you make your software better for them.

8. Spend Your Time Wisely

A good demo has lots of audience discussion. Getting the ratio right is key. Here’s roughly how I divide my time during demos:

  • 1/4: Setup and background
  • 1/4: The actual demo
  • 1/2: Discussion and Q&A

Notice that it usually takes about as much time to explain the background as it does to give the actual demo. Sometimes, the background actually takes longer, and that’s perfectly fine.

Also notice that about half the time should be spent discussing and answering questions.

Happy Demoing

These tips have helped me demo successfully, and I hope they help you. If you have anything to add, please let me know. I’d love to work new suggestions into this article.

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