At my job, I get to see a lot of software demos, especially at conferences and trade shows. Participating at such events can be really fascinating and, just like in the army, you get to go to exotic places (well, sometimes at least) and meet interesting people. Unlike being in the army, you rarely get to kill the interesting people you meet at the exotic places, though.

Having seen many software demos, I find it amazing that some vendors manage to sell anything at all. Not only is the quality of the presentation itself utterly bad, but the presenter does not seem to realize this. This is almost worse than the demo itself. The only way to listen to these demos is to have patience, time and lots of humor.

Based on what I have seen, and in the vain hope of maybe being able to influence some of these software demos to improve in the future, I hereby suggest the following points to the people presenting their solutions.

  • Know what platform/software version you are working on. Believe it or not, I have seen demos where the presenter did not know what version of the software he or she was working with. Did this inspire confidence in the rest of what was said and explained? I do not think so.
  • Know what you are doing. Know the tool and how it works. Never do a manipulation or an action if you have not done it before. Not only may it not work - which might be interesting to the audience though - but it may not be the way to do things correctly. What might ensue is a desperate and frantic attempt by the presenter to figure out what he or she is doing. This is all very educating, but do not do it so that it takes up the precious time of the audience.
  • Know who you are talking to. Understand the audience. An audience of business users does not care how many underlying processes are running and how efficient they are from a server perspective. And guess what, they do not care if the program is written in C++, RPG or COBOL. And vice versa if it is an overwhelmingly IT-based audience.
  • Know the purpose of the demo. Have a clear idea what message you want to convey. What is the proposed topic? Is it a specific business domain? If so, which one? Is it about technical advantages? It is easier to sell if you know what you want to sell.
  • Know how to explain your actions. Explain what you are doing. Just clicking around on different buttons, windows and other options is extremely confusing if there is no explanation at the same time. Actually, it can be confusing even with explanations, so keep it simple and clear.
  • Know to do what you say you will do. If you say that you will do something, do it. Do not start something just to end up with something else simply because it was more convenient or because you lost the focus on what you were supposed to do.
  • Know the common questions. Be able to answer all the basic questions right away. They may be related to the software, such as someone asking if a report tool can export data to Excel - one of the most common questions for BI tools. A question may also be related to the area to which a software is supposed to be applied. If you are presenting a performance management application, for example, know something about the balanced scorecard concept.
  • Know to be nice. Respect the audience. They do not know the tool as well as you do (assuming of course that you actually do know your tool). If they did, they would not be listening to you. Arrogant presenters have no place on the stage. And no, being arrogant does not equal being funny.

All these points should seem to be as basic as it gets. Alas, they do not seem to be so in reality. Apart from not knowing the application under demonstration, the main problem seems to be that the presenter simply does not know what the audience expects. He or she is therefore unable to speak "the same language" and to anticipate the obvious questions that will be asked by the audience. For some inexplicable reason, this is just all too common.
Of course, it is possible to do what a known database vendor did a few years ago. They recorded a perfect demo on video and then they just showed the video. Not only was it well prepared, there was no risk that the software would crash during the demo. On top of that, everyone in the audience knew that it was useless to ask to see anything else, as there was not even a theoretical possibility to see anything more than the video. I might add that this database company has since been bought by a competitor.

There are obviously good demos too, where you see the product and you begin to dream straight away about how the product can solve your problems and make life better and easier. Because of the astonishingly great number of bad demos, the good ones become an even greater joy to watch and learn from. Thinking about what Sally Field said in the movie "Forrest Gump" and given the wide differences in the quality of software demos, I can only conclude that software demos are like a box of chocolate - you never know what you will get.

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