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When demonstrations go bad

Ever had a demo go south?  In front of a really important audience?  I have, many times. 

  • My first demo experience at Microsoft, which was on the show floor at Comdex Canada in 1992, I had a hard hang and had to power cycle the machine. 
  • Years later, on stage with Bill Gates showing the new power management capabilities of Windows 98, the PC wouldn’t power up from standby without a full boot.  The point of the demo was… you guessed it… powering up from standby.
  • At the DEMO conference in February of this previous year, our website logged itself out due to inactivity, which we weren’t aware of until we reached that point… three minutes into our six minute demo.  It threw the whole pace of the demo off.

This past week, I probably had the worst demo experience I’ve ever had. 

  • We cut the time short to get our demo set up, missing a key point in getting one of our SIP clients configured.  As a result, some of our phones didn’t ring, altough the iotum logs clearly showed that it thought they were ringing them.  Worse yet, our PBX is configured to automatically send calls that it can’t terminate to voice mail.  It looked as if iotum was sending the call to the… wrong place.
  • For some reason the Project-A-Phone software we’ve been using to such great effect for the last few weeks to show our upcoming Blackberry software started projecting the image upside down.  Our low tech solution was to bolt the Blackberry in upside down, and run the demo backwards… it made typing on the Berry a little awkward.
  • We do the demo on two PC’s with two Livemeeting sessions.  I accidently deleted the Livemeeting session part way through, and was unable to log into the meeting from the second PC.  Livemeeting thought it no longer existed.  We had to get the audience to log out of Livemeeting, send them a NEW meeting request, and log back in.  It probably took 10 minutes to execute that little maneuver.

Although none of these errors were failures of our software, they all reflected badly on the quality of the demo and of our team.  I’m sure we didn’t leave the best impression.

Despite all this, demos are still my hands-down all-time favorite way to talk about a product.  Nothing conveys what your product does better than seeing it in action.  Nothing is more satisfying than an audience who says “show me”, and then nods heads the whole time in agreement with what you’re showing them.  And the vast majority of the time, if you’re prepared, they work flawlessly.

When demonstrations go bad, take a deep breath and…

  • Keep talking.  Audiences can be forgiving if you can fix the problem quickly.
  • Make a joke about it.  As one grizzled demo veteran I know said to me recently, “It wouldn’t be a demo if it just worked.”  At the DEMO conference, I made a 15 second quip to the camera man to try not to make me look fat on stage, which got a laugh and distracted the crowd from Howard’s quick fix.
  • Skip the broken part.  Just keep going.  Give a quick explanation of what would have happened, and continue showing the rest of the product.  Again, most audiences will forgive you and stay engaged.
  • Be prepared.  If it’s a really big demo, have a plan B.  Think of what can go wrong, and be ready to switch gears in advance.  Some of the teams at DEMO had backup servers, just in case.  You probably don’t need to go that far, but a set of powerpoint slides showing what you would have shown is probably a good minimum.

Some demonstrators like to fake the whole demo.  They’ll talk through a video rather than show the product live.  It’s easier to set up, and risk free.  Personally, I think that’s a cop-out.  People want to see your software, not a video of your software.  They want to ask… “can it do this?”, and have you show them.

If you decide to do a video instead, make it clear what you’re doing, and why. Tell the audience “you will be seeing a video”.  It sets the right tone, and puts all the cards on the table.  Do this especially if your plan is to talk over the video, and it could be mistaken for the real thing.


The absolute worst demo experience I have ever seen was built around a video.  About 10 years ago, one of the techs at Microsoft AV suggested to the Windows Server team that they simply video the whole demo, throw it on a laser disk, and project the video at Comdex, rather than lugging the servers down to Las Vegas.  Moreover, since it would be carefully scripted, they could hire an actor to give the pitch, and they wouldn’t have to send the product management team to Las Vegas for a week.  The actor would stand behind the podium, pretend to be moving the mouse, and give the presentation.  It would be just like the real thing. Unfortunately, a member of the press happened to be standing a little behind the stage, outside the presentation area, and could see that there was no mouse on the podium… DOH! The whole story came out.  Microsoft was made to look deceitful, and doubt was cast upon the quality of Windows server.  Neither outcome was good, and the story reverberated around the online world for months afterward.  Months!

It wouldn’t have been a problem if they had:

  1. Given a real demo; or…
  2. Changed the script.  If the actor had simply stepped out from behind the podium and made it obvious from the beginning that he was not in control of the keyboard, it would have been clear that it was a show, and not live.

Demo your product.  Be a showman, and take pride in what you’ve built. Revel in the opportunity to engage other people in your vision.

And sometimes it’s gonna break… it wouldn’t be a demo if it didn’t.

{ 3 comments… add one }

  • Zachary Houle December 14, 2006, 7:26 am

    Alec, your demo/presentation about blogging at DemoCamp (or was it CaseCamp?) was really great. You're probably the reason I've started blogging again, in a way. Got me fired up.

    So I hope you're not saying you're human after all. 😉

  • Martin Dufort December 14, 2006, 9:15 am

    Hey Alec.

    I’m in total agreement with this and especially the “Speed To Cool” factor associated to a demo. We had a very miserable experience at BarCamp Montreal.

    They decided to switch every presentation to a 15-minute format. Our presentation was inline with a 40-minute time slot.

    The moderator gave me the 5-minute to go sign and we had not started showing our web capability yet. No speed to cool there.

    We were also using the venue WIFI infrastructure but then we got terrible bandwidth as everyone in the room got bored by our intro and started surfing the web instead…. No “Speed to cool” there either.

    Terrible presentation, no backup plan, a failure; but a GREAT learning experience: “Speed to Cool” is key…

  • Alec December 14, 2006, 8:19 pm

    Thanks Zachary… I’m as fallible as the next guy, but don’t tell my wife that!

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