05018 Giving a Good Product Presentation

You hear lots of theories – some of them pretty cockeyed – about how to give an effective sales presentation and demo of your product. Everyone will have suggestions on how to do it. Every experience you have will give you new ideas. Here are some ideas from my own recent experience presenting a software product at a conference to two packed rooms of 35 attendees, and to a somewhat smaller group of 12.

Always the Next Step

When the team planned the presentation, the very first thing we needed to determine was what we wanted to accomplish. Our goal was to have people walk away thinking “I’ve got to take a closer look at that product.” Or better yet, since all sales calls try to lead to the next step in the sales process, we wanted to get people’s names and schedule followup demos. We wanted to grab people’s attention and make them see that there was something uniquely better about our product. We needed to stand out in their mind in a conference where they would attend sessions on many topics and be concentrating hard in order to absorb a whole lot of information.

In order to stand out from the other vendor presentations, we wanted to provide audience members with some good ideas that they could take away regardless of whether or not they decided they were interested in our product. That meant that we had to include a useful concept that could be used independently of the software. We made that the core element of our presentation. It was the part we presented first before we ever showed a software screen.

Also, our goal was not to get people to decide to buy the product. All we wanted was to leave an impression and have them want to take a closer look. So we focused on presenting a handful of gold nuggets in the software, the most appealing and impressive capabilities of all. We didn’t even try to cover all the capabilities and the many things that the product could do.

And it’s a good thing we chose just five things to talk about, because as we realized once we got started the first time, there was no way, with audience questions, that we would cover the material unless we boiled it down even more than we had already.

Audience Participation

Peter Cohan is the author of “Great Demo: How to Create and Execute Stunning Software Demonstrations.” You can get more information on his company at www.SecondDerivative.com. Peter also runs a web site at www.DemoGurus.com where subscribers exchange all sorts of tips for better software demos. He has one suggestion which we took to heart.

In order to truly demonstrate that your software product is easy, and in so doing overcome the typical worry among prospects that it is overly complex, Cohan suggests that you call up a member of your audience and have them work the keyboard. If anything proves to your prospects that people just like them can use your product, this is it, and it does it dramatically.

Therefore we selected one portion of our demo and called up a participant to do the typing and button clicking. It was extremely effective (though our palms were a bit sweaty when we did it).

In order to minimize the possibility of something going wrong, we talked our volunteer through each step, using a laser pointer on the projector screen to point out each step. We also provided a written and laminated set of step-by-step instructions, complete with all text we wanted typed.

We lined up the volunteer ahead of the session by asking one of the audience members who arrived early. That way we didn’t have to try to choose someone in the heat of the moment. And all volunteers received a fun present and a hearty round of applause.

Speech, Chat, Dialogue, or Panel?

Having defined our goal, we had to figure out which format would best accomplish it. This was a conference. We were competing directly with product demos at booths and in breakout rooms, but we were also competing more generally with individuals presenting case studies and advice. With an audience of individuals who had just attended insightful and inspiring sessions and speeches, we certainly couldn’t just give a product demo without coming across as crass snake oil salesmen.

A speech would have mimicked some of the nationally known speakers at the conference. It could have been very informative, but was likely to leave people frustrated at not seeing any software during what was, after all, billed as a software product presentation.

A chat would have been a great way to have a more conversational, talk-show like discussion. But that requires a lot of energy and a lot of improvising. It also requires an energized audience to succeed.

A panel is probably the format that holds the greatest credibility with prospects, who listen to a panel of their peers discussing struggles and successes. But a panel would have required lining up at least three customers who would attend the conference and provide a balanced mix of perspectives. Anyone who has tried to organize a panel knows how prohibitively difficult that can be to get all the stars (including star customers!) in alignment to make it happen. Not to mention that we had done a customer panel at the previous show.

So we settled on a dialogue format. We had two presenters, myself and another individual, speaking to each other and the audience. That way neither of us was stranded alone in front of a room full of people. Also, we could relax somewhat while the other was speaking and prompt each other for points they may have omitted.

The dialogue took the format of one of us asking questions and the other providing the answers. That meant we were able to build in questions that we expected would be on everyone’s mind, typical and common objections and clarifications that come up in demos of the product. We were able to move the content along in a more structure way by anticipating most of the questions and answering them in order.

If you choose to your answers into a one-person presentation, people often miss the points. Instead we hit the audience over the head with a very obvious question and its answer. Some of the questions raised objections or doubts about what had just been said, helping the audience truly think through the material, and letting us make a stronger case.

It’s The Humor, I Mean Personality, Stupid!

Using a dialogue format, we built a lot of humor into the presentation. We were able to ad-lib various lines and tease each other a bit. Humor, widely recommended for loosening up an audience, happened to be what came most naturally to the two of us.

For those of you for whom humor is less of a fit, make sure that your personality shows through. Are you exasperatingly detail oriented at times? Perhaps pointing that out and dedicating a portion of your material to a highly detailed explanation lets you take a trait that could easily be a hindrance in a presentation and turn it into an asset.

A Relaxing Experience

It was a safe bet that our audience members didn’t want another serious and formal presentation that was going to take a lot of energy to understand. We concentrated on relaxing, loosening up the format and content with a question and answer format, not to mention humor, and making the audience comfortable.

Figure Out Your Vulnerability

If you’re not relaxed, your audience will be uncomfortable as well, and have trouble concentrating on what you have to say. We each have different ways of showing our discomfort when presenting.

It is important that you discover how you show your discomfort. This is your vulnerability. It could be that your voice shakes, or that you stand in a strange way, rock back and forth, or stop gesturing. Whatever it is, pinpoint your vulnerability and figure out a trick to counteract it. Stand in a way that stops you from rocking. Push your hands together with enough force to stop your voice from shaking.

Expert or Peer?

Many presenters at the conference were seasoned experts with great insights to impart. Many others were peers who had hard-won experience and tips from having been through the same difficulties their audience members had. We had to decide whether we would be experts or peers.

We chose a middle-of-the-road approach, where we tried to impart our knowledge as “senior peers” who had struggled through many of the same issues, but had consolidated considerable experience and built up a whole lot of guidance. This focused the content on the business problems of the audience members, not on software or technology.

So Show Me

One common failing of software demos is to show the screens without talking about the benefits or the big picture. Another failing is to discuss the benefits without showing the nuts and bolts of how the software provides those benefits. So as we talked about each major benefit and concept, we used the dialogue format to stop and say: “Okay, so can you show me exactly how that works in the software?” That way we were able to cover both the conceptual, big-picture side of things and the nitty-gritty and practical aspect.

Way More Than You Can Ever Say

As happens so often (especially when you don’t rehearse until the last minute), we had more material, by far, than we could realistically cover in the time allotted. It became important to quickly drop portions of what we planned to say, and to boil down the longer explanations.

Points Will Be Forgotten

It’s not such a bad thing to have more things to say than you have time, because you inevitably forget some of the points you planned to make. When we forgot something central to the presentation, we had the other person to remind us (the benefit of the dialogue format). But we were bound to forget certain things, and the audience was no worse off for it.

Thinking On Your Feet

Because we had so much more material than time to present it, we had to think on our feet and skip portions of the presentation. It’s helpful to keep your eye on the time, or even to have a colleague in the back of the room with a prearranged signal when you need to speed things up and cut out content.

Following the Script

We prepared a script ahead of time that gave us just enough structure, without writing out the entire contents of the presentation, so that we could find our way through the topics but rely on our own ability to speak about them, without trying to memorize them. If you’re going to use a script, I recommend that it have only just enough detail to keep you on course without constraining you to remember entire phrases, sentences, and passages.


We were very fortunate at the show because we got to rehearse in conditions that were about as bad as they could get. There we were, standing at the front running through the script. In came the AV people to swap out the equipment. There were loud discussions about last minute arrangements. Staff came in to pour water and set down cups. Furniture had to be rearranged and there were more discussions about that. Every time the door to the room opened, it made a loud noise. People were receiving cell phone calls and speaking on walkie-talkies. It was better than anything we could have asked for.

You will find that if you rehearse a presentation under bad conditions, including the help of colleagues interrupting you and asking hostile questions, the actual presentation will be so much better that you will relax and enjoy delivering it.

Considering that we had our first formal rehearsal the morning of our first midday presentation (not something I recommend), we needed all the help we could get to relax. The difficult rehearsal really helped.

Taken Off Course With Great Questions

Because we were successful, we had a flurry of questions. During the second presentation, it looked like we were going to get so many questions during the first portion (where we presented our great idea), that we would never even get to the other gold nuggets, and the attendees would leave not really understanding how the scope of the product extended way beyond that of its competitors.

But think about it. When you attend a boring presentation, one where you’re unimpressed by the speaker and the product, do you ask a lot of questions? Do you even ask any? Usually not. Usually you want to just get the whole painful experience over with and get out of the room and on to other things.

So when people are asking you questions, even if they’re firing questions left and right, they’re engaged. They’re interested in what you’re talking about, and they care enough to want to know more. The best product demo you can ever have is one where the prospects fill the entire time slot with their questions and go away satisfied with the answers.

So I told myself to relax and let people ask all the questions they wanted. In the end, we got in all but one of the gold nuggets, quickly, near the end.

Who Is This For, Anyway?

Finally, it’s easy to get focused on the presentation you want to deliver, worrying about your delivery, what you want to say, and not forgetting material. But the real reason for your presentation is your audience, and communicating effectively with them. Try to forget yourself as much as you can and concentrate on the audience and their questions. They don’t know the details of what you’re going to tell them, so don’t sweat it when you forget some details. Often, your audience won’t remember much of what you said. But they’ll go away with an impression of how you said it and whether they enjoyed the experience. And a good product demonstration will have them going away thinking: “I’ve got to take a closer look at that product.”

— Jacques Murphy, Product Management Challenges


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