Behind the Scenes of a Live Product Demo

This post can be considered at least partially a follow-up to Seven Tips to More Effective Public Speaking

When Brent and I presented at the CableLabs Winter Conference, it was a great experience.  We formed part of the Innovation Showcase, in which ten companies demonstrate a new technology to, literally, hundreds of the most influential people in telecommunications.  Our demonstration went quite smoothly: only one person in the audience (who was aided by prior knowledge of the content) knew that anything had gone less than perfectly (fortunately for us, the part that went wrong was trivial).

However, the behind-the-scenes experience was a little bit different…and I hope that by sharing this story, you might remember it during some future moment of panic and relax a little bit.

Brent and I arrived in Atlanta the evening before the big rehearsal day (more on that, below).  After getting to our hotel, we set about ensuring the demo was ready to go.  A very similar demonstration had worked perfectly in our office the day before, so this was more of a cover-our-bases thing.  Well, wouldn’t you know it, but the demo was not being cooperative.  The hotel network set-up was very slightly different than the one in our office, and this wreaked havoc with our demo, which was incredibly sensitive to all sorts of networking minutiae.

Lesson 1a: Take nothing for granted; check everything…then check it again.

Lesson 1b: Arrive early enough to check everything.

Several hours later we’d gotten the networking kinks worked out, and celebrated with a delicious meal at Fat Matt’s Rib Shack.  Based on our recommendation, many other colleagues have subsequently dined at this fine establishment.  Seriously.  Go there.

After returning, we thought it would be prudent to completely cover our bases by actually running through the demo (having thus far only confirmed that the set-up was correct).  Well, again, very little was working as planned.  We had story-boarded a brand-new demo for the Innovation Showcase, and were adapting it from an existing one.  We’d run through the pieces in the office, and I swear we actually had it entirely working, but now it wasn’t.  So between 10pm and about 3am we debugged, and finally discovered an incredibly trivial piece of code (literally an and that needed to be an or) that was causing the demo to misbehave in certain circumstances.  Voila!  Working perfectly in a hotel guest room.

Lesson 1c: Seriously, get there early enough to have time to fix things.

The next day was rehearsal-time.

To deliver a good session, CableLabs makes sure that the presenting companies are ready – the weekend before the actual showcase is filled with dry runs, rehearsals of audio/video choreography, etc.  This gives both the presenters and the CableLabs staff the chance to detect and work out kinks.  Onstage, the presenters get to see a big digital clock counting down from 12 minutes; as I said in the previous post, there’s nothing quite like practice to help you improve and get the hang of your timing.

Due to a peculiarity of the network set-up and our demo equipment (as I said, we found out that the demo was incredibly sensitive to the exact network configuration), Brent and I realized during our first dry run (when it didn’t work) that we had a problem.

Lesson 2: Practice.

We figured out a solution and the afternoon’s dry run went smoothly from a technical standpoint.  However, Brent and I realized that what we had story-boarded wouldn’t work (we had planned on showing separate components on separate massive screens, but the setup only allowed for the same thing to be shown on two screens).

Lesson 2b: Practice some more.

So we had a bit of work to do for the “soft” part: narration, activities, how to best show what was happening, etc.  This required quite a bit of coordination between the two of us, as Brent had to keep things moving technically in the background (including moving different devices under the camera) as I droned on.

We also ran into another hitch.  Slightly deflating us after the technical success of our second dry-run, we determined that in order to do our demo we needed to reboot and reconfigure everything within the hour preceding our session.  However, there was a significant hitch: the tightly packed schedule and the fact that all the demos were arranged onstage ahead of time meant that we didn’t have access to our equipment (and due to the network, not even remotely).

There was no way around it: we had to spend the first minute or so of our demonstration rebooting and reconfiguring our equipment.  One more thing to worry about!

Lesson 3: Live demos…effective, but argh!

At least by this point we’d worked out the technical kinks, and could turn our attention to the actual story-telling component.  Without our actual equipment, we spent much of that evening discussing the timing, secret cues that we’d use onstage, and some key phrases.  We also discussed some “what if” scenarios (e.g., “what if this part doesn’t work?”), although I’m not certain we came to any satisfactory alternatives.

Lesson 4: Coordinate – thanks to practice (see above), Brent and I were completely on the same page, which built in a bit of redundancy in case one of us got muddled.

There was one particular point where I was tripping up during our little run-throughs – a particular sequence of words that had meaning (so I needed to keep them verbatim) that just kept me a bit tongue-tied: “innovative usage-based service plans”.  In my mind, that was the make-or-break point for my delivery: if I stumbled there during the live demo, there would be trouble; if I got it out smoothly, then nothing could stop me!

Lesson 5: Know your milestone points (even if only for timing)

I still, and will forever, remember the precise moment I felt truly comfortable that things would work: one minute before we went onstage.  Maybe it was that we’d had the first perfect run-through (again, without our equipment) of our dialogue, or maybe it’s because I tend to enter a trance-like state¹ when I’m about to deliver an important presentation to a large audience, but something inside me switched and I became perfectly comfortable.

(optional) Lesson 6: If possible, go into some sort of alternative state of mind in which you deliver a great speech

Now that you know the behind-the-scenes, you might view the video a bit differently.  For instance, during that first minute or so, when I’m thanking the organizers and talking about Neil Pasricha’s TED talk, I’m stalling while Brent got all our gear ready to go (please don’t get me wrong – I was also giving very genuine thanks…the CableLabs folks were fantastic).  I make light of it, but this also gave me a chance to get comfortable on the stage and settle into a good speaking rhythm (I talk very quickly in person).

Lesson 7: Take a breath, or a pause, or something to take it in and calm yourself before launching

At about the 47 second mark, Brent places the laptop on the table and that’s my cue that everything’s ready!  During the rest of the video, you might spot little things here and there that served as our cues, but for the most part we had it down based on timing and dialogue.  By the time the little thing near the end that was supposed to happen, um, didn’t, there was no way we’d be stopped.

So what did I take out of this?  Perhaps most importantly, I learned that even a reasonably well-polished demo can be a little bit chaotic ahead of time (I have this thought every time I see a perfectly smooth keynote or product reveal!), and you just have to work things out or chance your plan slightly to accommodate.

Lesson 8: It’s never going to go perfectly…so don’t panic when it doesn’t.

‘Nuff said.

¹I might do a post on this feeling at a future date, but I can only describe it as a trance or out-of-body experience – it’s almost as if I can see myself on the stage, doing my thing, and it just becomes automatic; afterward, my recollection is a bit fuzzy…basically, I “switch on”.


Lee Brooks is the founder of Cromulent Marketing, a boutique marketing agency specializing in crafting messaging, creating content, and managing public relations for B2B technology companies.

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4 comments on “Behind the Scenes of a Live Product Demo
  1. […] And I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that there was a bit of marketing pride on the line: how capable am I, or is our team, if the winning name came from some other part of the organization…from someone who’s just coming up with names as a hobby? Hey, I don’t come back there and start writing code, do I (even though I totally could)? (although, true story: I did have to debug a bunch of our policy rules one time to get a rather important demo to work) […]

  2. […] of delivering stand-up comedy, by Steve Martin, echoes my own experiences and descriptions (see Lesson 5 and the associated footnote on this post) of delivering a high-pressure presentation, p56: “My most persistent memory of stand-up is […]

  3. […] mentioned a demo I was a part of at a CableLabs conference many years ago, and how we were up late the night before getting the damn thing working, even though it worked […]

  4. […] engaged in more than my fair share of high-pressure technology demonstrations, and have written a little bit about them before. So when I came to page 209 of How We Got to Now, I chuckled out loud […]

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