Monday, March 17, 2008


When you're in the business of creating software, demoing your software is very important. If you're in a consulting type of business, then its even more important.

In college, I had the opportunity to give a number of presentations on some research I was doing at conferences. The research involved Mobile Agents, Evolutionary Computation, and Swarm Programming. Obviously, the audience was mostly professors and graduate students. I absolutely loved giving those presentations, and apparently it showed. After I gave a talk on Swarm the chair of the session came up to me and said he really wished his students could have been there to see it, not only because they were playing with swarm too, but because he'd been trying to tell them that research presentations could be fun.

I also had to give a couple of really stupid presentations in my Marking and Management classes. Both of these were completely devoid of any kind of meaningful content. They were just an exercise in... well, who knows. Fortunately, I got lucky and did pretty well. In fact, in both courses the teachers actually told the class that what I had done was what they were looking for from everyone. I actually found this horribly embarrassing. I still tastefully rubbed it in my friends' faces of course, but still.

Now, I didn't put any kind of special effort into those presentations. My slides didn't have animations and sound or funny jokes. In fact, I put about the minimum amount of effort into those slides as I possibly could. No one would call them pretty. So that certainly wasn't why it was "fun." I also didn't practice what I would say, I didn't work on any clever phrases. All I did was create a basic outline of what I would talk about, and then turn that into slides. Then I went and gave the talk.

Turns out the reason why I was getting such good responses was simply because of enthusiasm. I learned this from my research presentations, where the enthusiasm was genuine, and applied it to my business presentations, where it was totally contrived. All I did was:
  1. Behave a little less formally than everyone else
  2. Allow myself to get excited about the exciting parts
  3. Explain things from the bottom up (so people wouldn't get confused)
And that was it. All this positive feedback had me thinking I was really good at this stuff. And then I started working full time and I had to start giving software demos to relatively non-technical users.

Suddenly, my 3 steps to success didn't work anymore. Behaving less formally (which for me translates into acting somewhat silly) still got people's attention, but it didn't translate into them understanding or enjoying what I was demoing. Getting excited actually seemed to just cause them to get confused (and it wasn't because I started to talk fast, or about things that were only exciting to me either!). And I couldn't explain from the bottom up, because the audience didn't care about the software bits, and I wasn't involved in the business analysis so I couldn't talk about the why very well.

Finally, I realized there were a couple other factors that had contributed to why my college presentations went over well, and none of them had anything to do with what I was doing:
  • I had an interested and invested audience
  • The audience was knowledgeable about my topic
In the research presentations, everyone was smarter than me to start with, and what I was working on wasn't really complicated, it was more just fun. So they paid attention and played along.

In the business presentations, the other students didn't give a damn what I was talking about, but the professors did. The professors paid attention and played along.

Now, in these demos, the users really just don't care. You'd think they would... After all, its their software. But they don't. So they get distracted by any little thing and they can't follow the thread of what you're trying to demo to them. You'll say a word, which causes them to think of something, and they'll ask about that thing, even though its completely unrelated to the day's demo, but since they're the client you'll try to answer it, and during your answer they'll think of something else, so you'll have to try to answer that...

It's like a program with an infinite number of nested function calls, you never manage to return all the way up the call stack. And even if you did, no one would remember what was going on before the call.

Also, my demo audience members don't really relate well to computers. Its not that they get confused easily, and its certainly not that they're stupid. Its more that they're just nervous they're going to get confused I think. So as soon they start to slip, even a little bit, they seem to give up and stop following.

So the difference is the audience. I still believe that my enthusiasm mixed with the slightly silly relaxed style will work. What needs to change is the way the demo is presented. So here are the guidelines I've worked out that have had good results so far:
  1. Start every demo with a picture or flow chart of the overall process you're about to perform in the software
    1. This will help avoid questions like, "When will we do this?" "I'm going to show you that next."
    2. This will help avoid some of the side tracks as well, because everyone knows what we're trying to show
  2. When you first open a screen, start slowly describing what's on it
    1. This will give people an opportunity to read it and and try to figure it out for themselves, which they will do even if you try to dive it to explaining it
  3. Before you do anything (click anything), say what you're about to do
    1. "Now I'm going to add a new Employee"
  4. When you're doing it, repeat what you're doing
    1. "I'm going to click "New" *click* to do that"
  5. After you've done it, describe what happened
    1. "I can now type in the information about my new Employee"
  6. If you don't feel like a broken record you're doing it wrong
    1. Your audience doesn't know the software like you do, so it wont feel as repetitive to them
  7. Make sure you don't sound like you're insulting their intelligence, this is mostly a tone of voice issue
  8. If one person gets lost or confused, they could start seriously side tracking everyone else, so don't let anyone get lost
Has anyone else out there had these kinds of experiences?

1 comment:

  1. Yet another thing in common...

    I used the exact same presentation style in school! I would create bare-bones slides with just the outline so that I could keep track of what I wanted to talk about. I hated when people would write a novel in their slides and just recite the whole thing!

    I would also try to keep a light tone, and get engaged in what I was talking about.

    I swear, it's like we're brothers or something, where you're the older, wiser brother, and I'm the one that you always have to bail out of some sort of trouble (in our case, my bad designs) ;)


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