In December 9, 1968, roughly a thousand people watched Douglas Engelbart’s “The Mother of all Demos”. It was the very first demo that captivated the audience and created a category as a show. It wasn’t strictly a product demo, but a demo of visionary computer technologies such as: the mouse, hypertext, video conferencing, and a collaborative real-time editor, all in 100 minutes.
46 years later, with all the amazing technology we have at our hands and the number of products being launched every day, we still see how elusive is to craft an outstanding demo.
So let’s have a look at how to make a compelling demo that will make your product stand out. We’ll cover different types of product demos, take a look at the structure of a demo, how to prepare, and what to avoid.
You’ll soon know the answers to question like: Should I write a step-by-step script? Do I need slides? Should I state what I’m going to show from the outset, or aim for suspense?
This article will focus on software/web-based products, though most of the principles here will apply to just about any sort of product.
Types of demos
There are two main types of demos: public demos and private demos.
You’re in front of dozens, or even hundreds of people, standing up on stage. The public is watching, along with the media, investors, and other key people. You’ll usually find yourself in this position if you’re launching a new product, or announcing a big milestone. You’ve got a set time and a set plan. It’s time to impress, to be the showperson.
You’re one-on-one, or in a small group, visiting a customer or presenting to an investor. You have more time to go into details, and more time to field questions. You’ve got an agenda, but are likely to sway from it if the right (or wrong) opportunity hits. Your challenge is to make yourself understood to a group of people with diverse backgrounds.
I should mention a special type of private demo: the technical demo. Typically, this is a demo to your team during your Scrum Sprint Review meeting, though may also be with key stakeholders who need to understand the tech behind your product a little more. You can do this—and probably will have to—sitting down. It’s focused on very specific features of your product, and will likely involve a lot of questioning and ad-hoc demoing and testing on the spot.
Structuring your demo
A clear structure is a must. The exact structure will depend on many aspects such as the available time, type of product, type of event, etc. I’ll keep it simple with three sections: pre-demo, demo, and wrap-up.
There are two reasons why you need a pre-demo section: to build credibility and to give your audience an idea of what you’re going to show.
Write a brief introduction of yourself (e.g. name, position, experience) and give it to the person who will introduce you. In a public demo, this is the presenter; in a visit to a customer, it can be your colleague. Make clear that you are the right and most qualified person to present the demo.
Never start without explaining what the demo is about. Don’t assume that your audience will understand immediately once you start going. Even if you want to keep suspense until the WOW moment (to be explained later), you should be dropping some hints that’ll arouse suspense.
This is the practical section where you show how awesome your product is. We’ll cover this in the “Preparation” section coming up.
This is your chance to wrap up by reiterating the main message, making it clear and unforgettable. You should include a clear call to action, such as explaining when the product is going to be launched, how to preorder or download the product, etc. Avoid ending with the words “thank you”.
Preparing your demo
1. Define the main message that you want to convey
Your demo can be simple or complicated, short or long, but most likely there’s one single thing you really want to show. You want this single thing to be remembered. Write down that message – for instance: “Tell your message to VOICETOBLOG and you’re one click away from having your blog post published”. Your product might have many other great features, but in the demo you will put most of your effort to show the very best one.
2. Create a story
All outstanding products have a story behind them. Stories are powerful in connecting data and technology with real life, which will make your demo compelling and easier to understand. To make your demo stick, craft your story for your product or for the feature you’re showing off. For instance, you can create a story for VOICETOBLOG saying that once upon a time you watched a TV program presenting a disabled person who helped others by writing educational and inspirational articles.
3. Write a step-by-step script
Yes, write out a script, step-by-step. Scripts are more relevant in public demos, but I recommend doing it for any type of demo. The order that you present the product really matters, and scripting the demo allows you to tie in your story just right and helps you stay on track as you present. Additionally, it means that you don’t have to rely on your memory to repeat the demo each time.
Think of your demo as a theatre production, and that’s why you—as both actor and playwright—need a script.
Outlined the detailed steps in advance, such as which websites you’ll open, what files you’ll need on hand, etc.
To show you how easy VOICETOBLOG works, I’ll start by opening my browser and heading to the site at www.mydemosite.com.
I’m prompted to log in, so I’ll enter DEMO2015 and the password here so I can log in.
Now that I’m logged in, you can see the username appears at the top-right corner and I’ve landed on my dashboard.
On the left, in this main menu, you can see “Posts”. From there, I can find the option to “Talk and Create New Post”.
I’m going to press “Record” now and speak for a few seconds: “Brevity is the soul of wit –Shakespeare. Thank you for reading my first post. -Oscar”
I’ve clicked “Stop” now that I’m done, and the check here shows that my voice has been recorded.
4. Define a WOW moment
This is the moment that everybody must remember, in which you show the best of the product. You’ve already chosen your main message, and this is exactly what you want to drill in. In demos that are longer or technically deeper, you might need more than one WOW moment. Do you remember when Steve Jobs unveiled the MacBook Air from a manila envelope?
5. Make great complementary slides
Slides are not mandatory, but they can help you to reinforce information that could be easily missed during the demo. I recommend using slides before the demo to explaining the demo’s context or after the demo to outline the call to action such as how to order your product, or both – but try to avoid showing slides in the middle of the demo. This is where your product should be the centre of focus.
If you’re using slides, think of how you’re going to transition between them and the actual product demo segments so you can smooth it out as much as possible. Keep your slides simple, with clear text and clean design that doesn’t distract the audience.
6. Plan what to do if …
Anticipate problems that’ll likely happen, and take steps to plan around them. Do a dry run of the presentation a few times, and write down the most likely failures. You might remember when Steven Sinofsky demoed the Microsoft Surface Tablet: The IE app crashed, but he had another tablet just three meters away, ready to continue with his demo. He planned well.
Where possible, have a second device, extra cables, spare demo user accounts, etc. Consider how your demo will flow if your internet connection slows down or if your app hangs at an awkward time, and be ready with a backup or an anecdote to fill the time while things get back on track.
7. Be prepared for questions
Even if the Q&A isn’t a planned segment of your demo, be ready to answer questions. Anticipate to the most likely questions and prepare your answers. When planning your step-by-step demo, consider other areas of the app you might need to show off if the line of questioning calls for extra demo time. If you’re on stage, try to repeat the question for the rest of the audience if it’s likely they didn’t hear it too. If you’re tossed a question that’s out of context or you don’t have the right tools on hand to properly demo, don’t be afraid to give a short answer and ask them to speak to you after to cover it.
8. Rehearse to exhaustion
It’s not enough to design a smart demo; you need to rehearse it to exhaustion until it looks natural and effortless. The best example is Steve Jobs, who used to spend days rehearsing to make sure the final presentation was polished.
How to avoid common glitches
When preparing your demo, it’s hard to cover everything that might go wrong, though here’s some tips on how to avoid some of the more common issues:
- Test everything in the actual setting you’ll be doing your demo at least once, if possible. You might catch a few things are different than where you intitially practiced your demo. For instance, the Internet connection could be slower, have protocols blocked, require extra authentication, have signal coverage you’re unfamiliar with, etc.
- Minimize the number of steps in the demo. The scope of your demo will become evident when you write the script, and so at this stage, you should aim to simplify the steps as much as possible. Every action can usually be executed in several different ways, but by reducing the number of steps, you decrease your risk of bumping up into problems.
- Have backup devices and kit, as much as you can. If possible, have a version of your app you can run straight from your laptop without a connection. You could even record the demo in advance, to be used as a last resort if all else fails.
- Assign one person assist you, monitoring that everything is in order while you present the demo. Ideally, this person will warn you if there’s a problem cropping up you haven’t noticed. A great demo is often the result of great teamwork.
- Make a list of known issues in the devices and software. Products are not perfect—not even yours. Known issues may or may not arise during the demo, but better to have the solution on hand.
- If you’re heading to a foreign country, double-check that your kit will work: plugs, mobile band, mobile data plans, websites with location restrictions on content, etc.
- Disable applications that show notifications, disable alarms, etc. Same applies to physical products.
As you see, a lot goes into the preparation of a great product demo! Find your source of inspiration, such as Engelbart – Think of how you would like your demo to be perceived 40 years in the future. Now the stage is yours. Good luck!