The Art of the Demo: Tips on Storytelling

Decks and demos are the two core outputs of a product marketer. But a lot of PMMs have less impact than they could because they start off their demo design process thinking about features, rather than a story. A demo isn’t a sequence of features, and you’ll do more grokkable, relatable, and memorable demos if you approach them as stories.

Of course a demo is a little different than most stories: it tells a story with the visual assist of product screens. But because it’s a story, a demo still has to have a main character/hero. It also still has a setup to orient your audience, the creation of tension/pain, and the resolution of that pain for a happily ever after — all tied to business value.

Rough list: Structural elements of a great demo story

– Give your character(s) a name. Jane.

– Set up the situation. Jane is a facilities manager, and her job is to keep equipment up and running.

– Identify the challenge. In the past, Jane has had to visually look through every work order one-by-one, and often [gasp] on paper.

– Tie it to business pain: This has meant 2 hours every morning just scheduling the day’s work. For Jane and her 8-person team, that’s 90 hours a week, or 4500 hours a year — the equivalent of 2 full time staff just for this inefficient process.

– Show the simplicity: But now, the Magical Whatsit lets Jane select all her jobs with a click, and push the ‘schedule’ button. 

– When something happens off-screen, concisely explain it: In the background, the Magical Whatsit rules engine auto-assigns tasks in seconds, to get them done at the earliest possible date by workers with the required skills, in the right location.

– Show explicit results / Pull the rabbit out of the hat: Now you can see all of Jane’s tasks, all in the scheduled state.

– Restate the value: Now Jane can get on with her day running the business, and the time savings is like having two additional hires for her team, something she’s been asking for for years.

Pro tips

Here are few more best practices from the couple thousand demos I’ve worked on myself or with teams I’ve been a part of:

– Tell them what you’re going to show them, show them, then tell them what you showed them. Repetition works.

– Get to the product early. Sitting on a still presentation slide while talking about a demo is boring. Get the product up on screen.

– Make your data realistic and specific to your story (NO “Item 1”, rather “Vulcan Oven”)

– Demos are difficult to follow. Pause after every step and confirm the audience is following you. Their eyes and faces will let you know if they’re with you.

– If you’re demoing to a customer, ask her discovery questions at every step. “How much time do your coordinators spend scheduling work?” Some of the best demos I’ve seen get the customer into a robust discussion of her business early on, you never ‘finish’ the demo, and the customer and your account team are moving forward on the business discussion. This might seem like a failure, but compared to dragging a glassy-eyed customer silently through your story, you’ve had a much bigger win.

– If you see confusion, address it. Interactive is engaging. A demo that races by is low-impact and hard to remember or map to an audience member’s brain.

– Screens and text are small. Learn and practice zooming in on the part of the screen you’re showing. Google it.

– Have a re-cap slide you switch to at the end of the demo to remind them what they saw. This is another opportunity to create a great discussion.

Classic No-No: the Harbor Cruise

– I’ve heard hundreds of otherwise competent story tellers fail out of the gate by starting with: “on the left you’ll see the left-hand button, and on the right, the right-hand button.” While you can and should introduce the product screen with something like “I’ve logged into the mobile app on my phone, and that’s what we’re looking at here”, get to the story.

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