Don’t Drop the Ball on the Demo

By Brandy Davis-Balsamo

Every once in a while an embarrassing product demo gets captured in the media and we all hold our collective breath as the latest source of escalated hype plummets back down to the ground. A version of this happened a few weeks ago when Tesla attempted to show off the “armor glass” on its new Cybertruck model by slinging a metal ball at the window, leaving CEO Elon Musk blinking in the limelight as CRACK,  glass shattered to the floor.

Well, that was not supposed to happen…

Product demos are really important. Done well, they can positively transform the way stakeholders think about you, your product, and team. Don’t believe me? Check out Ford v Ferrari to see some of Carroll Shelby’s famous test drives.

Demos matter far more than you think.

As a product consultancy that’s been working with clients for decades, here are a few things we, at Carbon Five, have learned along the way about conducting successful demos.

First, let’s talk about the different types of demos. There are three main categories of product demos.

Sales Demos: Sales demos showcase the product to a potential client. They typically involve walking through user scenarios to illustrate how the application solves client pain points. The functionality could be actual or faked to showcase features that are planned but haven’t been built yet.

Feedback Demos: Feedback demos involve showcasing a set of features to key stakeholders for feedback. That stakeholder group can be internal or external. The intent is to show the group what’s been implemented and gather their feedback.

Team Demos: Team demos offer a moment for the contributors to view the functionality and reflect on the work to date. These are especially useful for large and/or distributed teams where folks might not have the opportunity to see the forest through the trees of their contributions.

Now that we have a sense of demo types and prospective goals, let’s talk about some general best practices.

1. Don’t side channel your demo!

If you are preparing a product demo, you need to let the team know about the demo! Don’t just assume that an environment or feature set will be up and ready. Let the team know what type of demo is being planned, what you intend to demo, who the attendees are, and when the demo is happening.

2. Put that demo in the backlog

It’s no secret that software execution is a massive cognitive load. The best way to manage that load for a team is by leveraging a clearly prioritized and organized backlog. Backlogs are a communication tool – use them as such.

My suggestion: put the demo details right there in the backlog. Slot it in as a milestone or chore – whatever makes the most sense to you and your team – but get that card on the board and have the Who, What, When on it for everyone to see.

3. Under promise, over deliver

I have seen too many teams shoot themselves in the feet by making unrealistic commitments and then failing to live up to them. It’s like witnessing an earnings call in which a company fails to deliver up to expectations. Their stock will depreciate in value, and stakeholders’ trust in your team will depreciate in the same way. But flip the script and surprise, you’re that company that came in ahead of expectations.

Here are a couple options for setting expectations in your favor –

  • If this is a feedback demo, you can establish a regular cadence and set the expectation that attendees will be previewing whatever is ready to review. I really love this scenario because it brings others into the evolution of the application and gets them to appreciate the work that goes into making truly great products.
  • If you must give stakeholders an overview of what they’ll be viewing further in advance, give them the minimum set (i.e. the conservative estimate on feature delivery which includes half your team getting taken out by that cold that’s going around). Don’t assume the optimal scenario in which everyone is putting in an 8-hour workday, is focused solely on this work, and all the estimations were spot on. Remember perfect work weeks are the exception, not the rule. 
  • If this is a sales demo, make sure the team has sufficient time to get the features in. If you can’t get those features in, perhaps you can walk through some design prototypes to prove to the client those features are in the hopper.

All right! You’ve communicated with your team, you’ve set expectations, but now have you gone the last mile? Don’t squander the work you’ve done to date by not doing the final preparation for the demo!

Here’s a prep checklist to ensure your demo is a success –

1. Create the walkthrough script 

Nothing is worse than watching someone fuss around for inputs or express surprise at the results. Have your inputs ready to enter and be familiar with the results. Pro Tip: save the inputs in autofill where you can.

2. Do a dry run of the demo 

Make sure you go through the exact script on the same environment, browser(s), devices, remote meeting app, anything you will use during the demo. If there is an issue, give yourself the time to resolve it or find a workaround. Pro tip – have a dedicated demo environment/ device.

3. Consider who needs to be in the room

If you have a subject matter expert stakeholder, and you don’t feel you will be able to answer their questions but you know someone who could, then, by all means, invite that team member so answers can be given right away.

4. Tell a story 

You’re leading a meeting, so make sure it’s engaging. Give attendees an understanding of why they are there, what you expect of them, and the work done to date means for the user/business and the overall product.

5. Rehearse before the demo

Do another pass or two before the demo to make sure you have your key messages, flow, and figured out.

Now you might be thinking, do I need to do all of this if I’m just doing a demo with the contributing team? Probably not, but you should at least do steps one and two.

Why? Because you don’t want a bunch of contributors debating why the software isn’t working as intended. That’s better documented as a bug for someone to look into.

Demos are key moments to showcase your product, gather more insight AND  to establish trust with other departments, customers, potential clients in addition to building a rapport with your team. Good demos don’t just magically happen – you have to coordinate and prepare for them. Here at Carbon Five, we recommend our clients build demos into their regular delivery routine. The sooner you develop that muscle, the easier having truly successful demos will become!

Want to learn more insights and reasons to do demos? Check out Building Trust and Confidence with Frequent Demos.


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