Twelve Ways to Ace a Product Demo–or at Least Avoid Flopping

By  |  Tuesday, September 22, 2009 at 3:35 pm

DEMO TechCrunchI’ve been a technology journalist for more than eighteen years now. A significant part of the job involves sitting through demos of new products and services I might want to write about. I’ve seen great demos. Good ones. Mind-numbingly bad ones. Bizarre ones. (Remind me to tell you about the time a product caught on fire in mid-demonstration.)

I figure I’ve witnessed at least 5,000 demos of hardware, software, and services so far, but I’m not sure if I’ve seen as many in so little time as I have over the past week as an attendee at both TechCrunch50 and DEMOfall, two conferences that both involve dozens and dozens of product launches. As I’ve sat here watching demos–including both really good ones and really bad ones–I’ve been mulling over the things that successful demos nearly always have in common. I’m documenting them here as a public service, or at least to get a few things off my chest.

Product demonstrators, heed the following advice…please?

1. Say what the product is. Early on, in a straightforward manner stripped of hype and buzzwords–both to make what follows clearer and to disabuse the audience of any misperceptions. (Example of why this is a good idea: HP’s Skyroom was the first product unveiled this morning at DEMO, and I labored under the misunderstanding that this software product was some sort of hardware until about halfway through the announcement.)

2. Don’t tell the audience that your product is going to change the world. Or even that it’s amazing. It probably won’t, and most likely isn’t. And by making inflated claims you ensure the product will fail to live up to them. Besides, truly amazing, world-changing products speak for themselves. (Yes, I know that Steve Jobs hypes products to the heavens, and it works–and the moment you magically turn into Steve Jobs, you can start doing it, too.)

3. Demo fewer features, not more . In a venue such as DEMO that gives you little time to do your stuff, you should probably focus on a couple of features at most. Certainly no more than three. Make sure they’re both memorable and representative.

4. Don’t claim you have no direct competitors. You do. (They don’t have to be exactly the same as your product–in fact, if they were exactly the same it would be pretty darn confusing.) Claiming you have no competitors makes you look clueless, or full of misplaced hubris, or both.

5. Have a backup plan in case something goes wrong. Have several of them, actually. At both TechCrunch50 and DEMO, a meaningful percentage of the demos have failed–momentarily or completely. I’d try to eliminate potential points of failure. I’d introduce redundancy if possible. (At the Windows XP launch in 2001, Bill Gates did a remote demo via Webcam using a notebook in Times Square; it choked, and he pulled out an identical notebook that worked.) And I’d figure out what I’d do and say if the demo was an utter failure.

6. Be very, very careful about trying to be funny. I’ve seen demos that have made me laugh (intentionally so!), but I’ve seen ten times more that I thought were lame. And some of the ones that made me chuckle didn’t help me remember the product in question. (I recall a guy in a cowboy hat from a DEMO past, but couldn’t tell you a thing about the product he was pitching.)]

7. Mention how you plan to make money. Briefly, and at the end, but everybody is wondering, so you might as well get it out of the way.

8. Remember that fewer presenters are usually better. At DEMO, many of the demos involve multiple people, but the most memorable ones usually involve one person on stage. It probably reduces the chances of embarrassing screwups, too. (There’s a reason why Steve Jobs has historically gotten Phil Schiller involved in his demos only when he absolutely, positively needed a second person.) The person who does the demo should probably be the most talented presenter in the company, whoever that person may be.

9. The most credible presentations are done by people who you can envision using the product. For some reason, amazingly few of the scads of presentations I’ve witnessed involving professional graphics software have been done by artists. More often, they’re done by people who would have trouble sketching out a stick figure. Similarly, music-related demos are best done by people who seem to love music, and game PCs should be demoed by people you can imagine playing games.

10. Make sure your audience can see the demo. Especially in a venue such as TechCrunch or DEMO, where it may be hard to read small onscreen type, and projection may be on the fuzzy side. (Most impossible-to-see demo I’ve ever sort of witnessed: Microsoft’s unveiling of the first Windows CE PDAs, which involved murky projection of even murkier non-backlit monochrome displays.) It’s probably a good idea to avoid demos in which not being able to read the screen renders the demo unintelligible.

11. Practice. Practice. Practice. Take a break. And then practice some more. Lastly, practice. Other than having a truly great product, it’s the best way to ensure that your demo goes well.

12. Go to shows like TechCrunch and DEMO and take notes about the clichés you hear. Then avoid them when you do demos. (There’s a generic sameness to many of the demos at these conferences that makes it hard to tell one company from another.)

I could go on, and I might at some point. But you’ll have to excuse me right now–I need to go back to watching demos…


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2 Comments For This Post

  1. John Baxter Says:

    “Say what the product is” seems like a really good idea.

    All 12 points are good.

    Sorry, but I laughed at “where it may be hard to read small onscreen typo” in number 10.

  2. phil Says:

    One more point. Put the name of the company on the screen, particularly when names these days are non-words or cute contractions. At today’s DEMO none of the company names were projected on the screens. I had to read the names off some of the shirts.

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