Demos must work–simple concept? So why is it so rarely applied?

When I attend events like TechEd, like many people I usually find the networking time more valuable than the session time. There is a pretty tight limit on the number of sessions you can attend, no matter how hard you try. So I often watch the sessions later when I can. At one of the earliest TechEd Australia events that I attended, they gave us CDs of the TechEd USA sessions. That was great because that TechEd had around 250 sessions, and there were over 150 that I would have loved to attend. Clearly that wasn’t possible.

I was doing a lot of driving to/from client sites at that time, and so I had a lot of available listening time. I dragged the audio out of all the TechEd session videos and just listened to the audio. If a session really interested me, I’d go back and watch the video and demos.

That year, I listened to/watched around 150 sessions. While it was intense and interesting, there was something that I wasn’t expecting, that completely stunned me. I heard the presenters apologising for demo failures in close to 100 of those sessions. I found that really, really hard to believe. I was determined that when I was presenting any sort of session at events like these, that I wasn’t going to be one of those people, or I’d do my very best to avoid it.

Having your session work as planned already puts you in the top third of all the sessions.

So if you want to be on the right side of this equation, what can you do?

1. Have realistic goals for the amount of content.

I normally aim to tell people three things in a session. They certainly won’t remember more than that and it’s the stories that they’ll remember anyway, so make sure that each demo has a good story associated with it. And if showing any one of these three things takes more than about 15 to 20 minutes, try again. Blaise Pascal said “I would have written a shorter letter, but I did not have the time”. Plan the content and tell the story succinctly. Plan your timing. It’s hard work to get just the right message in just the right amount of time.

I have lost count of how many sessions I’ve been to that run out of time or that failed to make one of the key points. Don’t be one of them.

You’ll be especially sorry if your session description includes content that you didn’t end up covering. Someone might have come just for that content.

2. Aim for repeatable achievable outcomes.

I’ve seen so many demos that would probably only ever work with the moon in the correct position and the presenter holding his/her head the right way. Don’t do this.

3. Have a clear structure.

There’s perceived wisdom that sessions should be all demos. I don’t buy it as the only rule. I’ve been to brilliant sessions with none, and I’ve been to horrid sessions from amazing people where they have no structure to what they are trying to show.

4. Practice both the session and the demos.

And I mean multiple times. The bigger the event, the more the whole session needs to be second nature. Try to deliver the session at smaller venues first. Local user groups, virtual sessions, etc. are good options for this.

5. Find another presenter as a critical friend.

I have friends that are talented presenters and I love having one of them in the room for trial runs, with a view of being critical. Someone that says “yeah that was great” is nice. Someone that says “you lost me in the second part of the demo” or “I think the third demo would work better if you…” is what you need. Be prepared to do the same for them.

6. Record the demos.

When presenting at large events, I have a series of screen shots saved on a USB key, and I also have a full video walkthrough of each of the demos. I’m determined that the audience will get to see the demos.

As a simple example of when this has saved me, two years ago for TechEd Australia, I was presenting some Azure-related sessions. The Azure folk had decided to do maintenance and take things offline right in the middle of the event.

I told the audience, switched across to the videos of each demo, which I did a live voice-over for, and I suspect that many of them would have quickly forgotten that they were watching a video. By comparison, I attended several other Azure-related sessions at that same event and watched presenter after presenter stumbling when things would not work. You need a fall back plan.

Hint: Don’t just play the video with voice, etc. as well though – make it still pretty much a live thing. I’ve seen sessions where people just play a video with sound and it often looks like they could never have actually done the demo, particularly if it’s someone else’s voice.

7. Don’t try to debug live.

Unless it’s an obvious and trivial issue, you will do far more damage by trying to debug it. Attendees hate watching you stuff around trying to fix issues. You might feel great *if* you ever get it solved but you will have messed up your timing and possibly looked really, really bad in the meantime. And if you can’t solve it, you will have really messed up. Instead, move on and use your backup plan.

Isn’t this what everyone does?

It seems pretty basic to do these things but time and again, I see the opposite happening even at major events. I watched AzureConf the other day, and even the keynote had these issues. Having been involved in event keynotes and knowing what level of rehearsal normally goes into them, I can just imagine the discussions that went on later. They wouldn’t have been pretty.

You can avoid being one of these statistics with just a bit of planning, and you’ll already be ahead of the pack.

5 thoughts on “Demos must work–simple concept? So why is it so rarely applied?”

  1. Your professionalism and your humour with your peers in TechEd sessions gives me a great impression of what you're probably like with your clients. The amount of creative and technical work you put in speaks volumes on how much you respect those of us on the receiving end. You walk the talk.

  2. A great post Greg. As someone who demos a lot, the lessons here for TechEd and other conference speakers should be obvious.
    FWIW: the last time I spoke a TechEd, I was required to record and submit a video of each demo. Which was a good thing because my demo did blow up on stage (kind of hard to take a network capture over wireless when the wireless goes down). But I had the video queued up (as was strongly suggested by my speaker coach) and sure enough – just as the demo started, the wireless failed.
    Seems to me that pretty much every conference should make this checklist a part of the speaker agreement!
    At teh end of the day, I live by Mrs Murphy's colorary to Murphy's law. She simply state: Murphy always was an optimist.

  3. Thanks for sharing ! Very good points to take note.
    If it ever happen to you again, you can entertain the audience with some "learning chinese" humour 😊✌️

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