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Kevin Kline

Demo Mastery for the Technology Evangelist

In the same way that the finest presentations involve much more than the simple relaying of information, the finest software demos are much more than just presenting features.  

REMEMBER: The goal of a demo is to INSPIRE the audience to use the software/technology, not to teach them every nuance of software/technology.

I've spent the last 10 years learning how to give good presentations and to give good software demonstrations. Here are several tips to take your software demonstration from informative to masterful:

1. Know your audience

Whenever you start a demo, make sure you have a good idea what the audience is interested in. That way you can focus the attention of the audience upon things that actively engage their imagination. You really, really want the audience to be thinking about how they're going to use the software that you are presenting. If it if you're not presenting on something that they're interested in, they'll mentally disengage. In some cases you'll even see them open their laptops and start to answer emails. That's the last thing in the world that you want to happen.

In many cases, I'll begin a presentation by asking my audience to tell me more about themselves. I want to know how much of their time is spent as a developer, as a DBA, as a designer. If nothing else, I can change the sort of examples that I use to be tailored specifically to the audience that are presenting to.

Truly bad software demos have problems. The code doesn't work. The beta software crashes. The screen shows the dreaded blue screen. But that's one thing. What you really want to avoid, is the truly mediocre software demo. The quickest path to a mediocre software demo is to simply show every feature and explain each in as much detail as you can. It's like those games that sit in our closet that no one likes to play. Most all of these games are ones in which one person takes a turn while everyone else waits. No one has any fun except for the three or four minutes in which it relates directly to them.

2. Start, but only start, with an agenda

It's always a good idea to inform your attendees of what you would like to present. What you present the agenda it's a great idea to confirm that this agenda is what the audience is looking for. Before I learned to do this on a regular basis, I found that my presentation might contain two or three lengthy sections of my software demo which were completely uninteresting to the audience.  The customer is really numbed by this waste of time. It's far better to tell the audience what you are going to tell them.

Here's my routine when I start a demo. Confirm that your agenda is of interest to them and recheck the time constraints of the meeting. Then, get to what they are interested in. This flexibility also provides you the opportunity to inject other software demonstrations that are much more pertinent to your audience. Audiences love a presenter who can think on their feet and are flexible to the interests of the audience.

3. Skip the lengthy intro

This is a aspect of demonstrations and presentations that I struggle with. I worried a lot that I hadn't demonstrated enough credibility with my audience. And so for many years of my technology evangelism role, I spent a lot of time telling the audience about myself and about the company. What I found over time though, is that audiences actually give you an initial dose of credibility. It's up to you to maintain and even enhance that credibility through a strong demo and a good presentation. Better to have a very short introduction and get straight to the meat of the presentation.

Call out - Mouse Cursor Movement: It's especially important to remember in online demos that there is usually a great deal of latency between what you do on your screen and what your audience sees on their screen.  So it's important to remember to MOVE YOUR MOUSE SLOWLY AND THOUGHTFULLY! I've sat in online webcasts, and even in in-person events, where the mouse literally disappeared on one section of the screen and reappeared elsewhere because the presenter was moving their mouse cursor here, there, and everywhere.  If you want the audience to see what you're doing with the mouse cursor, keep it slow.

4. Show what is pertinent

One of the most important things a software evangelist can do is to show the most important and pertinent take away of their software. Let's you are trying to teach an audience about the extreme ROI (return on investment) of a particular kind of business intelligence strategy, it's crucial that you figure out in advance what are the key takeaways that you would like your audience to remember. Typically in audience will only remember two or three very salient points about your demo. If the BI presentation spends the first 30 minutes showing how to build a report but never once mentions ROI, what do you think the audience will remember? Once you know what is pertinent to your audience and what you want the key takeaway to be, you should focus the rest of your energies on building an airtight demo that supports those takeaways.

You will see the inverse of this many times in a mediocre or poor demo. At the end of the demo the audience will feel like they have sat through product training, rather than a call to action that inspires them to use the product. I've sat through demos in which the presenter carefully walk through several different menus, tabs, and wizards. And after 30 minutes of that, I now knew HOW to use the software, but I still didn't know WHY I would use the software.

In the worst cases, showing everything that your software can do may leave the audience feeling that it is too complex, too detailed, or too overwhelming for them to use effectively. Remember that a software demo is not design to train the audience. A software demo is designed to inspire the audience to use your products.

5. Don't get sidelined

We usually get sidelined in our demos by two things: questions from the audience and "technical difficulties" a.k.a. bugs.

Questions from the Audience

It's usually a good sign if your demo is provoking questions from the audience. However, you don't want to demo to turn into free consultation to solve one person's problem. Nor do you want to turn into fact-finding for one very narrow set of interests or to become the arbiter of some sort of political dispute between factions in the audience.

When taking questions, remember to repeat the question to the audience. This ensures that you fully understood the question, that the questioner asked for what they meant, and that if there is any recording going on the question will be picked up by the recording system.

But my typical rule of thumb is to only spend a couple minutes on a single question and questioner. Once a single questioner goes beyond a couple minutes, you can usually tell if you're heading for the sidelines. It's at that point that I asked the questioner if we can take the question off-line and come back to it afterwards so that everyone else can benefit from the time that we have set aside right now.

Technical Difficulties

Another form of sidelining are bugs in the software and outright crashes of your demo environment. Many times this simply can't be avoided. This is especially true if you are demoing a beta version of the software. But there are couple important things to remember if you are sidelined by a bug or crash.

First, mention if you're using a beta and that it might not be fully stable. Also, be sure to mention that the software WAS stable when you prepared the demo. Second, test your demo after conducting a full reboot of your demo environment. I've seen many demos crash because the presenter made other changes in the environment but only tested for the software demonstration itself. Third, Don't draw attention to bugs that you encounter during the demo, especially if they're just cosmetic. It's important not to do things like slap your four head and exclaim "what the hell is that?" If it's a bigger bug that hampers or interferes with functionality, you might state that it's normal functionality is… XYZ. Finally, if you experience a major bug or crash, immediately disconnect the projector or the desktop sharing application. There's nothing worse than seeing a presenter struggle with the bug in front of the entire audience.

6. Hit the jackpot

All good jokes have a punchline. All good action movies have a climax. All good newspaper stories have a headline. Your demo needs to have a jackpot, where the audience can clearly and immediately see how your software pays off.

Let's say you're doing a demo of the new columnstore features in SQL Server 2012. You could spend a lot of time showing the conceptual underpinnings of a columnstore index. You could show the state was to create columnstore indexes, to modify them, to drop them. You could admonish the audience and ways to build read-write systems so that they can easily get data into and out of columnstore indexes.

But what's the real payoff of a columnstore index? It is incredible fast for a particular kind of scenario on SQL Server. So in this example, your jackpot is to show how difficult that scenario is under normal circumstances and then immediately show how easy and fast it is with the columnstore index. Bingo! Your audience is hooked. They immediately see why they want this. There inspired to start using it. Now, they want to figure out how to use it and want to know when and under what conditions they should use.


Are you an SC, technology evangelist, or technology presenter?  What are your tips for a better demo?



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Published Friday, February 15, 2013 12:02 PM by KKline

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Boris Hristov said:

As both a SQL Server trainer and presenter and someone who is trying to educate people on how to make their presentations better, I do want to add up and make this list even more complete. Here are just a few from me that make me angry every ... single ... time I see them during a presentation or demo:

1. Screensaver just turned on - so unprofessional and such a small and easy thing to fix. Still, I am seeing it very, very often!

2. Power saving options got just turned on - now your queries run slower, because Windows / Mac OS decided that they are not going to go back to Performance mode for some reason. Again - it's just a click away from fixing!

3. Various distractions - you just received an e-mail or your Skype rang. Probably, someone just wrote you on Facebook and a strange sound is coming from somewhere? These are all bad and they are bad, because they distract audience's attention. You don't want that! Believe me...

4. Your demos fail and you do not have a backup - how is it possible for presenters (and I am getting emotional here) to still think that when their demos fail, it is OK to say "ah...I do not know what happened, I will show it to you next time"? Seriously? That is really unprofessional and shows that you do not respect people's time (and that is REALLY BAD!). You always have to have screenshots or even better - a video recording of your demos! Gosh...

5. The audience cannot see what you are doing - this is so common and I have been on presentations where the presenter says: "I know you cannot see it, but I cannot do anything about it" and the whole room goes laughing(yes, they did!), because they know there is a way and it is so strange that you as a presenter don't! Take a step and test tools like ZoomIt, Magnifier, your OS built-in and make sure that the audience does not have to make any effort in order to see what is there on the screen.

One more - bonus :) - never ever (forever ever... :) ) say "as we all know". No, we don't! Noone knows everything, but that does not make us half people! That is why it is better to use "Did you know..." or "How many of you actually knew that...".

Hope these 6 helped. Kevin, what do you think?

February 15, 2013 5:00 PM

KKline said:

Outstanding comments, Boris! I have a few more comments I should add about demos and presentations as well that are more 'logistical' in nature, like making sure you've got Zoomit installed AND that your fonts are visible to folks in the back of the room.  

Again, very good contribution to the discussion. =^)


February 15, 2013 7:33 PM

a.m. said:

Boris: I think many presenters say "as we all know" to try to show respect for the audience. It's interesting to think about. If you say "did you know..?" you might annoy someone who thinks they're above your content. If you say "as we all know" you annoy someone who didn't know. I'm not sure where the happy medium is. I don't say either!

February 15, 2013 9:35 PM

Boris Hristov said:

@Kevin, I think we can do a pretty good list of NOT DOs and THINK ABOUT THESE here, yes! :)

@Adam, I see it this way - if you say "as we all know..." and I do not know it, I feel uncomfortable. I would never go with the "as we all know" in order to show respect to the audience. I will figure other way out to accomplish this and that is why I also do not use it.

If you say "did you know..." and I don't know it - I feel interested! I am about to learn something new! If, however, I know it, it's OK. Your comment regarding the people "above your content" is valid though, but do you really think that you as a presenter should care that much for people that obviously does not pay any respect to you and your content? I am always, always trying to tell students and people that I help with their presentations, that whatever they do, no matter how good they are, there will be a person - one or two, probably more, that will be dissatisfied with you and your stuff at the end. The question is - how can we make these people less! How can we do our presentations so good that when the moment comes we have just 2 people thinking that "this presentation was not a big deal"... :)

"How many of you actually knew that..." for me is the same as "did you know..." . Again, If I know it - good for me! If I don't - then obviously I will learn something new and I am interested.

These are all so tricky, don't you think? That is why I am also very, very careful of what I say and how I say it and If I can go and do my presentation without even using one of them - then even better. I am a total supporter of yours "I don't say either!" :)

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About KKline

Kevin Kline is a well-known database industry expert, author, and speaker. Kevin is a long-time Microsoft MVP and was one of the founders of PASS,

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