Ultimate Guide to Giving a Demo
Congratulations on building your killer demo. Now it is time to deliver it. We put this guide together to share our experiences over the last 18 years of helping some of the biggest software companies in the world create and deliver amazing demos. Hopefully, this can be helpful to you as well.
We divided it into 5 sections:
Preparing for the demo. This section covers the logistics you’ll need to keep in mind to make sure your demo goes smoothly.
Customize and make relevant. Demos are usually created for a wide variety of audiences and settings. What can you do to make sure this demo is going to land for your specific audience?
Planning for Problems. No plan survives first contact with the enemy and demos have a nasty tendency to act up at their most important times. What can you do to prepare for the inevitable issues?
Delivering your demo. Why in the world did we let this guide go 10 pages without talking about addressing the core of our topic? Because preparation is going to make or break your demo. Having said that, we’ve gleaned some great techniques over the years we can’t help but share!
Closing your demo. This is your moment. You prepped, rehearsed, planned and gave a great demo. What can you do to end strong?
Preparing for your Demo
In the ultimate guide to giving a demo, before even thinking about your demo itself… we want to make sure we give you some tips for prepping your machine and planning for your environment.
Planning for the room
Here are some questions to ask as your thinking about the physical environment you’ll be in.
What kind of connections does the room have for you? Will you need to bring any adapters?
How big is the room/audience? Will people in the back of the room be able to see the bottom of the screen (a common problem)?
Does your demo require a connection to the internet? Will there be a wired connection present? Will you need guest access to the wireless? Is this something that needs to be worked out in advance?
Tip: If you are presenting at a large conference, always take a physical network connection if possible. Frequently, the devices attendees bring and use during sessions can overwhelm the location’s wireless network. This is especially true on day 1 of the conference, where things are still being shaken out.
Is there enough space for your devices? Do you have a podium, a table, any space backstage for your devices, enough ports on the KVM? Or, are you sharing space on the conference room table along with your customers? In any case, it’s good to know up front how much space is available for you to use and how much you’ll need.
Can you get into the room early? Preferably a few days early at a conference or 30-60min early for a sales call.
Tip: Don’t forget that other people will be using the room after you run through your tests. Settings might be changed!
If giving a keynote demo, don’t be afraid to communicate with your tech and stage crews. These people will be your best friends during your keynote presentation, so it is best to have open communication. Make expectations clear on all sides and each of you will know what to expect during the event. Voice your concerns and questions. Most importantly, have a walk-through of your presentation with these crews to ensure that everyone is on the same page. Understand the tech. Know what channels your primary and back up devices are on. You don’t want any confusion between you and your tech team.
Preparing your demo machine
In the 18 years we’ve been doing demos here at 3Sharp, we’ve developed a few tips and tricks to make your demo machine that we had to add in the Ultimate Guide to giving a demo that are more conducive to a great demo. It doesn’t matter if you’re giving the demo on your personal device or a dedicated machine, these tips will help you get rid of distracting elements and avoid potentially demo-ruining pitfalls that have befallen the best of us in the past.
1. Bump DOWN your resolution
We get it. You are a tech fiend. You’re running crazy pixels so that you can fit your favorite IDE on the same screen as your app, plus a debugging window and maybe a database window in there as well. At least, that’s how we role. And then, of course, we’d try to show someone something cool on our screen and they couldn’t read the millimeter high font, since many of us need reading glasses by our mid 30’s.
Do your eyes and everyone else a favor; reduce your demo monitor resolution to something that is visible to normal people. It’s best if you know the room size, screen size and native resolution you’ll be presenting on to do some simple math to figure out what people will be able to see.
2. Bump UP your font size
This is true for the text in your documents/spreadsheets/whatever, as well as the UI of your applications. This means that it is time to learn all about those accessibility settings that you’ve completely ignored.
To do this, select the Start button and then Settings, Ease of Access, Display and experiment by dragging the slider to find the right size for your audience. Remember that the people in the back of a hall will have a different experience than you are having on your laptop while you are experimenting.
Total shout out to those of us who actually need these settings. Once you, as a demoer, start using them you’ll start to see where they fail and you’ll definitely start feeling for the folks who need them to get their job done. This is as good a time as any to plug support for these features to your Dev team
3. Clean up your desktop (seriously)
We try to lead an uncluttered life… emphasis on “try.” Having an icon-free desktop sits squarely in the aspirational category for many of us. Just like you don’t want to invite someone to your house when it’s a mess, it is best to get rid of your desktop clutter before a demo. You can cheap out on a solution like us and just create a “to sort” folder to dump everything in and then, on a long flight, clean out your 5-deep stack of “to sort” folders while paying half-attention to Jaws 19.
4. Use a relevant and compelling background
Sometimes, if you have a small audience, it’s nice to leave family vacation pictures up to make a personal connection. As your audience grows, it is best to have a muted background. Why not take the opportunity to increase your brand recognition by having your company’s logo as your desktop background? Of course, this is completely up to you, but having your favorite Budweiser background up probably isn’t sharing the right message.
5. Turn off ALL notifications
The last thing anyone wants is to see the email TOAST pop up from your coworker about cleaning out the office fridge again.... Best to turn off as many notifications as you can!
6. Turn off social apps
Likewise, getting an IM from your spouse about how child #2 threw up at recess today probably will just detract from your message.
7. Hide your taskbar
We are big fans of extending our display onto the demo screen (instead of duplicating the same desktop on all screens). That means we can have our taskbar (and whatever notifications we miss) show up on our laptop while our secondary display is used for the demo. This means we can hide the taskbar, have an IM window open with colleagues, etc.
8. Disable Updates
The last thing you want is for your computer to go through a forced update during your presentation. You may laugh, but we guarantee you that it has happened.
9. BONUS MAKE SURE YOU’RE PLUGGED IN
Believe it or not, we’ve seen it happen more than once that power wasn’t getting all the way from the wall to the demo device. One demoer (thankfully not ours) was forced to make a mad dash through the conference hall in search of a power cord for a demo machine with a battery percentage in the single digits.
Customize to make your demo relevant
Your product is only as good as your prospect’s understanding of it. Enter your demo with a clear vision of what you want your prospect or audience thinking when they walk away from the presentation. Of course, this will differ based on the audience, where they are in the buyer’s cycle.
Demo your customer’s story, not product features
It’s time to harken to your distance past, when you were in your product planning stages to remember back to what the core problems you were solving with your product. It can be dangerous to lose track of those throughout the product lifecycle. If you haven’t, you’ll have some great demos to put together that are not so much focused on your product, but instead on the customer problem space that you specifically designed your product for!
If you are demoing to a specific customer, this becomes even easier. Just find out from the salesperson or the customer themselves what major initiatives and/or issues they are currently focused on and ask yourself how your product(s) can address them. If you can find out how much the problem is costing them and equate that to dollars saved while demoing you’re doing it right!
If you are walking through the various menus and highlighting popular features, it’s time to rethink your approach.
Reading the room
Have you ever had a demo where the presenter raced through his or her content for 45 minutes straight, wrapped up with a smile, and asked you if you had any questions? If you are like me, you were probably trying to catch up from that one thing 5 minutes into the presentation that you wanted to clarify. Ever since that point, the monologue was drifting in and out of focus. Eventually, you just gave up and started to run through the grocery list you had to pick up on your way home.
Make your demo a conversation
Your demo should be a conversation. It should be loose and fluid. Ensuring your audience is engaged is key! One great way to do that is by asking questions early, and often.
Ideally, if you’ve had time to do your research, you’ll know the important questions to ask. These will most likely be leading questions that you already know the answer to and will help you make your point. i.e., “Ahmed, would you share more about pain point x and what it cost you last year?” It’s the perfect segue to show how your product resolves pain point x and will save the company money in the coming year.
Building long-term relationships
However, you may not have been lucky enough to have had the time to research this particular prospect. If so, then questions are even more important. I sometimes start with a few such as:
Who can give me examples of challenges/problems you want to address with this software?
What are your biggest concerns about this software acquisition process?
What are you hoping to get out of the demo today? (Frequently, the answer is a generic one about “getting a good overview of your software.”)
If the group is impatient, I’ll point out that the software is very large and has many different features. I want to be sure I focus on the aspects of the product that best fits their needs.
Note that all of these are Open Ended Questions. Try to avoid closed-ended questions that can be answered with a “yes” or “no.” The goal is to get the audience sharing their goals, concerns, and issues that they want to be addressed.
Actively engaged people remember more
Just as important, once you get started, a great way to keep your audience engaged is by interacting with them directly and meaningfully. This does not mean giving them a pop quiz about what you just showed. Instead, try your best to interact with a more meaningful business, or even personal, level. Examples might be:
“Bob, how much time do you see this saving your team this year?”
“Peggy, based on your team’s need to up production by x percent next quarter, I’d like to walk you through…”
The phrase, “People support what they help create,” is often applied to organizational motivation and change. It is just as true in the demo world. If people are actively involved with the demo, they are in essence, helping to create the demo. They will be more inclined to internalize your messaging and be better positioned to consider your solution as the resolution to the issues that you and they discussed together.
By pausing and giving them opportunities to internalize the concepts you are sharing, you dramatically help their engagement and likelihood of visualizing themselves, and their teams, using your product.
If you are lucky enough to be able to talk with your audience ahead of time, there are a few questions you can ask to better prepare yourself and your demo. Remember, your goal here should be to present your product in the context of the customer. These Ultimate guide to giving a demo questions will help you understand their context:
Is there anything specific that you are hoping to see?
Do you have any concerns that you’d like me to address?
What would you say people are most concerned about?
Who are the people who will be involved in the buying process (make sure they are present)?
What are the major problems you are looking to solve? How much are they costing you?
What do you currently love about your current solution?
Understand your spot in the sales/buying process
Your demo should be specifically designed to land at a phase of the buyer’s cycle, be it informing the customer of a problem, giving them the information they need to make a decision, showing your product off in the most favorable light possible (mostly by tying what your product does to solutions that will solve your customer’s biggest issues) or even to inform the implementation team of how your product works.
Stages of the sales pipeline vs. buying process
Note that your pipeline probably doesn’t tie directly to the customer’s buying process. Remember that the customer is the one driving, although hopefully with your guidance! Be sure that you are cognizant of where they are currently in their own buying process and be careful to not rush stages. As you can imagine, a demo meant to inform an audience of a problem they didn’t realize they had is very different than a demo given to the IT department after a customer has purchased the product. They have very different goals and a very different structure. Make sure you have the right goals and outcomes in mind.
What is the goal of your demo? – to move to the next stage of the process
It is rare to have a customer jump up after a demo and write you a check. It’s not that this hasn’t happened, but it is certainly not the norm. One could argue that the purpose of any sales meeting is to help the customer take the step to the next stage in their buying cycle or your pipeline. It is dangerous to rush the buyer or to try to jump stages.
Keep this in mind when you are putting your demo together. For example, if you are very early in the cycle, you may not even be meeting with the true decision maker. The goal of your demo may be to gain agreement from your contact to organize a meeting with the rest of the decision-making team. For many SaaS product scenarios, customers want an early demo just for proof that the product isn’t vaporware.
As mentioned above, if you are presenting at a conference, the next stage of the process may be a follow-up session which provides a deeper dive into the software, a hands-on lab to learn more, a meeting with you or someone else at your company’s expo floor kiosk, or even a website or email address where they can follow up for more information
Planning for problems during your demo
For any live demo, whether at a conference, event or a sales call, you must prepare and plan ahead. If you are demoing at an event, engage the production crew early to address specific needs of your demo. Problems are inevitable, so we had to include some tips in our Ultimate guide to giving a demo. Using these in your planning can help reduce the risk of them becoming major distractions.
Be prepared for technical difficulties
The devil is in the details and it’s always Murphy’s Law when it comes to live demos. The one thing you forgot to check will definitely backfire once you are live. It's 100% okay to be paranoid and obsessed with your demo. (It also doesn’t hurt to drink a VERY strong cup of coffee and pray to the Demo Gods)
More often than not, your presentation is one piece of a very large effort to produce an event. When there are so many moving pieces, you have a very good chance that something will be overlooked. Don’t be afraid to double check your connection (even if the A/V team swears they already did it), and ensure you have what you need and it’s operating as expected.
Designing for success
Things go wrong. In fact, things tend to go wrong while your demo is live, in front of a live audience and streamed out to 100’s of thousands or even millions of viewers. Just ask Chris Caposella, now Microsoft’s CMO, but back in 1999, he was a product marketing manager on the Windows Vista team, live on camera with Bill Gates when this happened.
Admittedly, it is hard to recover when your entire machine dies. However, there are many failures that are recoverable. It is important to give yourself on/off ramps to your narrative that allow you to jump around if things go south.
For example, if every stage of your demo requires the previous stage to have been successful, you are out of luck if something goes wrong. However, if you have multiple standalone sections to your demo or existing content that you can use to relaunch a thread, you can recover from one or more failures without skipping a beat.
It is a rare demoer who can troubleshoot live. Brian Jones, currently the Head of Product, Excel for Microsoft has legendary demo troubleshooting skills. Of course, he frequently demoed to developers who could learn from his real-time debugging. One thing I can pretty much guarantee, if Brian is demoing to a C-Level decision maker, he won’t be troubleshooting during his demo, he’ll be moving on to his next demo entry point and keep the story moving forward.
Have a backup plan
Here at 3Sharp, we’ve been building technical sales enablement tools, such as live demos, since our inception in 2002. We are strong proponents of great live software demos.
However, even we agree that there are times that other alternatives are preferable.
Benefits of a live demo
There is something special about a live demo that lends credibility and almost a moral authority to your product. An authentic, hands-on demo, is a proof point, convincing skeptical customers of the reality of your solution. Furthermore, a live software demo gives you the ability to adjust the path through your product for each customer. When a customer asks a question, you can address it by showing the answer with the product.
The Risks and Benefits of using a video
There are very few times we would ever recommend a video over a live demo. However, there have been times that we’ve done it, and even a handful of times (in our 16-year history) that we’ve recommended it. The danger is that your audience may think your product/new feature/etc. is not ready to be shown. And certainly, if it is not ready to be shown, it is not ready to be purchased and implemented at their companies. If you use the analogy of the pig and chicken opening the breakfast store, you are the one selling the renewable resource. It’s your customer whose butt is on the line.
The benefits of using a video during your live demo can outweigh the risks. Here’s how:
Your demo is guaranteed to work: There is no worrying about finding the undiscovered bug, mistyping something, or accidentally clicking the wrong thing.
You do not need to learn the click-path (just the talk track): We've watched more than one executive during keynotes accidentally find their way off the demo path during a live demo. The great ones recover and use it as a teaching moment, the others switch to a backup. You're guaranteed to stay on track with a video!
A 3Sharp customer experience
Recently, we supported an internal all-hands meeting for a very large division of one of the largest software companies in the world. A senior VP was scheduled to talk to his team in a stadium. He wanted to do the demo himself – to show the team some of the cool things they had done over the past year. The team was big enough where not everyone knew what each other was working on. Because he was an extremely busy SVP and didn’t have time to learn a demo, as an alternative, we filmed a video and gave him a talk track.
In this situation there is one very important thing to keep in mind: He did not need to gain trust with his audience. They knew he wouldn’t be lying or making up the work that he’d be showing off. They were not skeptical customers or partners; they were part of his internal team, where trust was already built.
All this SVP needed to do was lean on the talk track. There was no need to learn the click steps. He didn’t have to worry about the ability to handle any issues that arose – it was early pre-release software, after all. This demo was a hit and got a lot of excitement from the SVP’s team, as well as ours!
The magic of a click-through
Many companies are starting to move to an alternative: click-through environments. These can be HTML, locally run apps or even customized PowerPoint decks. At a minimum, these will show progressive screenshots of product screens. However, they almost always are enhanced enough to mimic the real environment, with delayed load times, menu animations, etc. Click-Through environments work well for large, distributed sales team who are responsible for many different products. We included them in our Ultimate guide to giving a demo because they are a great backup (or even primary) environments for every salesperson to have in their toolbox. We have been building Anytime Demos for our customers for years now as back-up environments. They are a big hit!
Don’t dwell on problems/mistakes
If you’ve been giving demos for some time, you understand that sometimes the demo gods are just not on your side. Technology can be fickle, and we often have to make the call in the heat of the moment to either address an issue, or just keep going. We felt like the Ultimate guide to giving a demo needed to have some advice on moving on from flubs.
In some scenarios, particularly for smaller or tech-friendly crowds, it’s okay to troubleshoot the demo to get it working. The audience can learn a lot from watching how you problem-solve within the technology.
For big crowds and less tech-friendly audiences, this can distract from your overall message and you need to move on swiftly. In either case, don’t dwell on an issue that occurs, over-apologize, or say, “Well, it worked earlier…”. Your confidence in your demo – hiccups or no – drives your audience’s confidence in your product.
It may seem like a given for anyone planning a keynote or live demo to practice prior, but for maximum likelihood of success, practice to the extreme. When you think you've practiced enough, run through your presentation three more times.
Not only do you want to know the flow of your presentation and ensure you have the right ratio of demo and story, but you want to make sure you’re familiar with the areas of the demo where there might be risk of something going awry.
Typically, a demo ebbs and flows. There are “wow!” moments and there are times where clicks are required just to transition.
Becoming ultra-familiar with the flow of each demo ensures you are comfortable enough to get through any timing issues and keep your audience engaged.
Delivering your demo
Don’t make any last-minute changes! (THIS IS A MAJOR TIP IN THE ULTIMATE GUIDE OF GIVING A DEMO)
You’ve practiced enough. You and your production crews are on the same page and ready to go. Don’t risk losing this by making unnecessary changes at the last minute.
Show up early and test setup and practice at least once all the way through
If you are at a conference, there is almost always a pre-scheduled time a few days in advance of your presentation where you can test your setup in the room. Likewise, if you are meeting a potential client, ask them to book the room 30 minutes prior to give you time to set up and troubleshoot any issues. In both cases, it also helps to reach out ahead of time with your needs. This is especially true if you are needing to do anything other than display your screen, such as playing audio or conferencing other people into the meeting.
Agree upon goals of demo
It is amazing how powerful this can be. Before you even begin with your demo, state, as clearly as possible, what you want the audience to get out of the demo. In a sales call, this can be done in a PowerPoint slide and used to ensure that you are covering the most important needs/concerns of your prospect. On stage at an event, this can be helpful to prep the audience and get them in the right mindset for what you are about to reveal. As mentioned above, these takeaways should be focused on business value, not features. i.e., “I’m going to introduce you to the awesome new features of my product!” just won’t land as well as “Imagine if [problem x] suddenly become [solution y].” BTW, these should be easy to pull from your product planning work.
For a product manager, this can be a hard conversation to have. You are usually being pulled last minute into a high-profile sales call – frequently dangled in front of the client to show how important they are. Our warning: Do not go into this conversation cold. Make sure you spend a few minutes with the sales rep understanding the customer’s issues. Your demo can fall flat if you launch into your product pitch, going a direction the customer doesn’t care about. Trust us, we’ve seen this happen. It is both inelegant and embarrassing. Instead, if you can show that even the product manager cares about this customer enough to understand their situation and is showing off their product in the context of the customer’s needs, you will gain credibility that few companies can pull off.
Making eye contact
If your demo becomes a lecture, you have lost. Remember that you are interacting with real people who are, hopefully, engaged and interested in what you have to say. Make sure you are reading the room for interest and engagement. Look folks in the eye, just like you would in a conversation, which, remember, this is!
Pausing for questions/engagement
Depending on the size of the room, your demo can be part of an intimate meeting between just two people or in front of 10’s of thousands of live attendees (and countless more streamed over the internet or on TV).
In a sales call, pausing for questions and interaction is key. In fact, we recommend referring back to the goals of the demo that you clarified earlier and actively ask the attendees if the goal has been met when you hit that point of the demo. Don’t be afraid of engagement. If someone asks you a question you do not know, you can show credibility by stating you don’t know the answer and get back to them. For this, it is extremely handy to have a colleague in the room taking notes. If not, it is imperative that you stop and write the question down and follow up.
Playing to the Room Size
Different sized audiences call for different techniques. Even the way you talk should change depending on your audience. While it is always important to talk slowly and enunciate, it becomes even more important on a stage. It takes time for translation services, caption services, and people’s brains to work. If you are presenting to an audience who are not native speakers of your language, ensure you tone down your vocabulary and stay away from colloquialisms.
Closing the demo
Reminding your audience of your goals
When your demo is complete, run through your goals one last time. If the room is small enough, give everyone the chance to agree that you’ve hit the agreed upon topics and to voice any concerns that might otherwise be hidden from you, but rise up during their internal meetings. Even when on the stage, this helps your audience put all of the awesomeness you just showed them back into their context.
If you have the opportunity, in a small environment such as a sales meeting, you can take advantage of your time to make sure that you are finishing up on the same page as the audience. Here are a few questions to ask to ensure you are all on the same page and you don’t leave with any unmet expectations:
Did I cover everything you were hoping to see today?
What aspect of our conversation most stood out to you?
Did you see anything that was concerning to you?
Do you have any concerns about moving forward?
Gain agreement on next steps
On stage, this can be as simple as sending people to a URL or directing them to a more detailed breakout session (or a chance to meet you afterward on the expo floor). At a customer site, this is an excellent opportunity for you to gain a commitment from your prospect to move themselves further down the buyer’s journey.
In either case, don’t miss this opportunity to close strong and take advantage of the momentum you worked so hard to build up.