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Five tips for delivering memorable and impactful technology demos

Hi, my name is Sigmar and I’m a real-life Pre-sales Engineer (aka “demo jockey”) here at ZeroTurnaround. A large part of my job includes delivering technical demos to technically-minded audiences abut our products JRebel and LiveRebel. Whether you are demonstrating to potential customers, your own colleagues or an audience of 500 people that you are sure are much smarter than you, you can only be sure of one thing: every demo contains something that is likely to fail and embarrass you.

When giving a technical demonstration, especially with products that you didn’t code yourself, there are a lot of emotions involved. Excitement and even anxiety abound as you run through your mental checklist. Halfway through your presentation via Skype or GoToMeeting, you might realize that everyone has actually been offline for the last 5 minutes. Doh!

This short article will give you some tips about mitigating the number and severity of your demo fails based on my experience delivering hundreds of demos on JRebel and LiveRebel here at ZeroTurnaround.

Let’s start with understanding what a demo is, and why it should not be a one-way presentation, but a real conversation with each other’s goals in mind.

Tip #1: Think differently (about what a demo is)

When I first started delivering technical demos, I expected that I would simply showcase the most awesome features of our products. Later, I understood that a good demo is actually a conversation with regular pauses to make sure my audience is following and understanding everything.

For me, a demo is a conversation and presentation combined. If your audience wanted to see a show, they would watch a video on your website, not spend time with you during business hours.

A good demo should be as interactive as possible and keep your audience interested in what they are watching, but it cannot be just a sales pitch–and your demo will not have such an impact if you aren’t able to describe knowledgeably the problem’s domain that your product solves.

Each demo is a private and highly customized interaction, and your audience should feel like they are having a dedicated conversation.

This is one-to-one time that should be wisely spent explaining and giving examples of how the product’s features will solve the specific challenges that your audience is facing in their organization, whether it is painfully slow app server restarts during development, or manually-driven, error-prone production deployments that shut your online applications down for hours whenever an update is needed.

Tip #2: Always have a plan…and a back up plan

To make sure I didn’t suck at demos straight off the bat, I watched many demos made by others and got the general understanding. Outside of industry events and tradeshows, we deliver most demos over the web, often from vastly distant locations at weird hours, like 11:30 PM.

There are benefits and disadvantages of online demos, for which we generally use GotoMeeting or Skype. On one hand, I can have little scripts and notes with me to follow in case I get lost at some point. On the other hand, you can add a high-probability “demo fail” factor to your list: IP-based communication problems.

Keeping a checklist to avoid certain pitfalls is obviously important. Here is a small checklist I have when giving a JRebel demo:

With a planned script in hand, I don’t have to worry when my viewers immediately start asking their deep technical questions at the beginning of the demo, which is something we actually encourage them to do. But I might leave out some important point that confuses the context, or I do not remember my last point anymore.

A good demo should have a plan and follow the subject matter flow, yet be flexible if needed so that you can get back to where you were. Having a good structure to your demo will help to keep it flowing smoothly and help make sure that your audience understands all important features of the product. It’s like cutting the orange and showing the composition from peel to core.

Tip #3: Set the scene well at the beginning

During many demos I have seen that the presenter sometimes forgets to give a brief intro to the product and starts off, as I have also done, without setting the scene well (meaning, building excitement and motivation on the audience’s side).

Before starting your demo, you should ask your audience how much they already know about the subject matter. If they’ve read some documentation online and haven’t seen it working, then the full demo is the way to go here; otherwise, you should try to determine the parts that can be just skipped to save some time and dedicate it to Q/A or deeper technical inquiries.

Before digging into features and functionalities, it is quite essential to have a motivated and curious listener on the other side. Try to create some excitement here–excitement draws the audience into the demo and during that time they are more likely to listen to you than checking e-mail or Skype chats during the show. Adjust the speed of the  demo to fit their needs. Going too slow will put them to sleep, and going too fast will make them give up.

Tip #4: Make it interactive and they won’t hang up on you

When I hear no questions from the other side for some time – it’s a sign that either everything has gone very smoothly, or the customer just got bored and hung up already or is just waiting for the end.

This is why I try to make frequent pauses, especially when doing online demos without video, so that I can make sure the audience is following along. I throw in some questions and bring the listeners back into the conversation. When presenting key features, it’s helpful to have little mini discussions so that the area we’re covering at the time will be more memorable.

These sticking points will also help your audience be mindful of a flow and structure to the demo, and provide additional context in case they get lost. For example, my colleague Adam Koblentz always remembers to make sure his listeners are following him after completing a new step.

Final note here: When you make multiple demos for the same products over and over again, there is a threat that you’ll go “robot” and start sounding like the recording when you’re on hold with some call center. Interacting with each demo audience in some unique way will help you avoid sounding like you’ve been brainwashed by technology makers into doing 100 high-speed demos a day. Hooray!

Tip #5: Handle demo fails with grace and a sense of humor

Demo fails happen to everyone, so don’t think that even the most amazing and innovative people are worry free (in fact, it looks much worse when it happens to them!): Steve Jobs, when introducing the iPhone 4, struggled for half an hour loading a web page before forcing the audience to abandon their own WiFi-enabled devices so that his demo could continue.

Typical demo fails are:

  • Interwebs fail: Internet connection problems
  • HW fail: WiFi, keyboard, mic not working, second screen not syncing etc.
  • Contact fail: Email or IM notifications on the screen
  • Coworker fail: Somebody screaming some (mostly silly) jokes behind my back
  • Brain fail: forgetting your listeners’ names, your next topic, which product you’re demoing, or your own name.
  • Product fail: congrats, you just discovered a new bug in your product!

Well, there are infinite amount of demo fail examples, starting from earthquakes and ending with some stupid joke about genitals shouted during the demo.

Demo fails can sometimes be avoided, but usually only after you’ve committed them yourself. Once you have experienced them, you never want it to happen again. As I wrote above, have a plan and a checklist so you can handle the worst case scenario.

If something goes totally wrong, for example the product doesn’t work at all, it is a good idea to just admit it and try to laugh about it. They’ll probably have some measure of pity on you, or they could just upload your atrocious fail to the interwebs and let it go viral.

Too long, didn’t read (TL;DR)

Jeez, it wasn’t that long! ;-) Look, most of these tips in this article are a mixture of common sense, planning and a bit of luck. If you want to just read the end, here are the major points:

  • Tip 1: Remember that a demo is not going one way, but a unique, two-way conversation with each audience.
  • Tip 2:Having a checklist and plan in place will keep a good flow and make sure both you and your audience don’t get lost.
  • Tip 3: Set the scene for each demo, so that you can use your time efficiently and provide the best possible context for your audience
  • Tip 4: Be interactive and build excitement among the audience. Why are they listening to you?
  • Tip 5: Accept that demo fails will happen, and do your best to prepare against them.

Hope you found this to be helpful! The best way to get in touch with me is in the comments section below, or you can schedule a JRebel or LiveRebel demo with me at support@zeroturnaround.com.

  • Mikael Gueck

    What software would you recommend for recording and editing demo webcasts?

  • arhan

    If you’re on Mac, then ScreenFlow is a very nice software for screencast recording end editing. Otherwise, Camtasia is also very good for postproduction of the video files and voiceover.

  • Sigmar

    I’ve used Camtasia many times, also Quicktime + iMovie on the Mac are quite good tools.

  • http://twitter.com/mtaivai Mikko Taivainen

    Very good demo tips indeed. IMO, to hava a backup plan is the most important tip, and in my experience (too), it shouldn’t require working internet connection. Pre-recorded video has saved our team few times and I usually have backup copies in a USB stick and/or in some file sharing service You know, Murphy’s law says that if you don’t have those, your laptop will explode and destroy all the digital material just few minutes before the demo should start…

  • Sigmar

    You are right! We do have demo videos as well in case something goes totally wrong :)

  • harry

    Awesome tips. The most important in this is how to engage with the audience/viewers, how to keep them on the same page and especially, how to make them stay. This is very good blog.

    In addition, let me share this quick video discussion by two folks from Design Reactor about Top 10 Best Practices for Product Demos

    Something I can relate to in this article. Hope this helps.

  • Allan roger

    By considering above mentioned points & using right tools like RHUB, Avaya, Polycom, WebEx, gotomeeting etc. one can conduct quality sales demo, online meetings etc.