Learn from the Masters to Deliver a High-Tech Demo

You don't have to be Steve Jobs to wow your audience with an awesome product demo. With a few tips and examples from popular product demo pros, you can minimize gadget glitches and deliver a presentation that packs a punch  – to the CIO, the venture capitalists who might fund your startup, or at a tech conference.

“You've just seen some pictures of Macintosh. Now I'd like to show you Macintosh in person,” Steve Jobs says on stage in 1984, as he prepares to show the audience a demonstration of the first Apple Macintosh.

“All the images you are about to see on the large screen will be generated by what's in that bag,” Jobs says, as he points to the nearby mystery bag. Jobs strolls over to the bag and calmly lifts out the product with one hand. The crowd claps. Jobs inserts a disk, the computer screen lights up, and the Chariots of Fire theme song starts to play over the speakers as the stage lights dim. As the word “Macintosh” scrolls across the computer screen, the crowd laughs, cheers and applauds. The computer demo progresses through screens that show an art program, word processing, a spreadsheet, and a chess game, which receives the loudest applause.

“Now, we've done a lot of talking about Macintosh recently,” Jobs says, “But today, for the first time ever, I'd like to let Macintosh speak for itself.” Text pops up on the computer screen as a robotic voice inside reads the words, “Hello, I am Macintosh. It sure is great to get out of that bag. Unaccustomed as I am to public speaking, I'd like to share with you a maxim I thought of the first time I met an IBM mainframe: Never trust a computer you can't lift!” The crowd cheers, laughs, and loves the demo. The Macintosh continues, “Obviously, I can talk, but right now I'd like to sit back and listen. So, it is with considerable pride that I introduce a man who's been like a father to me... Steve Jobs.”

Even though the computer hands the audience back over to Jobs, he can't start talking yet. He's too busy getting a standing ovation.

“They aren't pulpit-thumping preachers, they aren't used-car salesmen and they aren't even movie stars,” writes John Markoff in his 1996 New York Times article, Nothing Up Their Sleeves? Masters of the High-Tech Demo Spin Their Magic. “But the world of high technology has spawned its own virtuosos who have raised the mundane product demonstration to an art form.” Markoff traces the rise of the product demo to art form-like status back to a 1968 computer mouse demonstration by Douglas Engelbartht. More than 40 years later people are still talking about the Mother of all Demos.

Perhaps your product or the project you’re proposing to Management isn't as revolutionary as the mouse. But you can still learn a few tricks from the demo gods and how they address their audiences.

Marketers aren't the best product presenters.

Chances are, your CEO or product engineers can provide a compelling product demo. Businesses should consider the tech folks before handing the mic over to the marketer.

Guy Kawasaki, former software evangelist for Apple, tells Markoff, “The single most important determinant of the success of a demo is intimate knowledge of the product. Believe it or not, something as simple as that is usually violated. Usually companies send people who are marketers with little understanding of what they're selling."

In addition to knowing and understanding the product, whoever does the demo should practice, practice, practice before getting in front of an audience, so start them off in front of your team. By doing so, the presenter can work out any presentation glitches, double-check the demo equipment and any accompanying slides, and make sure that all team members can contribute feedback. This can also help the team members become intimately familiar with the new product.

Be wary of WiFi.

Words you never expect to hear at a tech conference, “The Internet connection is awesome!” In May 2010, Harry McCracken attended Google's I|O conference and wrote an article about the experience called Why Tech Conferences Are Now the Worst Place to Demo Tech Products. “It was an eminently worthwhile event, but wireless connectivity issues were a persistent problem,” he writes. “Demos during both of the show’s keynotes were messed up by the difficulty of establishing a reliable connection in a room packed with geeks brandishing smartphones, notebooks, and MiFis.”

A few weeks later, Apple's WWDC was held in the same venue, McCracken explains. “Nobody knows how to orchestrate a demo like Steve Jobs, but when he attempted to show off the iPhone 4, he couldn’t get Safari to load Web pages,” he notes. “The poor guy was reduced to pleading with attendees to shut down their Wi-Fi and said there were 527 MiFi-type wireless routers in the room.”

If the Wi-Fi is unreliable and wrecks your demo, how will you respond? McCracken says that some tech execs, including Steve Jobs, get visibly testy and resort to asking the audience to shut down their gadgets. “Others sweat, tug at their shirt collars like Rodney Dangerfield, and apologize,” McCracken observes. “Some desperately try to make the demo work until the clock runs out; some cry out for tech support; some give up and move on.”

Consider working around potential bandwidth issues by using a wired Ethernet, for example, or - if that's not an option - ask audience members to turn off their gadgets before the demo starts.

Remember who is in your audience.

The same product might require different demos depending on the conference audience. In The Great Demo! Top Ten List, product demo pro Peter Cohan recommends only showing the product capabilities that address the customer's problem or needs.

“This is not product training; it is a critical step in the sales process,” Cohan explains. “Don’t show all of the file types you can open, nor all of the various search options, or formatting choices. Stick with the directly relevant facts. You can lose business by showing too much or taking too long.” Cohan also says to remember the technical level of your audience and language diversity that might make colloquialisms confusing.

Embrace humor, but avoid jokes.

“No jokes,” says Paul Brown, editor-in-chief of Linux Magazine Spain. “Unless you're a professional comedian, they won't work. Use funny life-stories, things that have happened to you or people you know, instead. Make sure your stories have some sort of punch line.”

As you can see in the original Macintosh demo video, Jobs doesn't crack any jokes, but he does use humor to keep the crowd entertained and the mood light.

Less might not be more, but it's probably better.

“Use very little text, no code, no bullet points, and few slides,” Brown adds. He also recommends a recent Forbes article and accompanying video, How to Pitch Anything in 15 Seconds.

Dive into the demo.

Your audience would prefer that you get to the point. “Ditch the presentation and demo the product in the first five minutes,” Brown says. “Everything else — who you are, whether you're market leaders or not (everybody is, apparently), and the R+D you've done to develop the product  — is secondary.”

Which product demos have been most compelling to you? Let us know in the comments about any tips you have for mastering the art of the product demo.

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