Preparing to improvise

Recently I had the very cool opportunity of demo’ing some critical UI concepts to our company CEO (with assorted execs), as well as to high profile customers seeking a multi-million dollar product deal. Whew! No pressure, right?? Some fairly intense situations, no doubt. While the outcomes were gratefully very positive, with ample feedback for future iterations, I wanted to reflect upon some valuable lessons learned.

The primary lesson for me: that when preparing for a product demo you must be ready to improvise on the fly, not only because of technical snafus (which are inevitable, to varying degrees of severity), but also for audience reactions and skeptical questions. Remember, they are seeing the concept for the first time; you’ve been living it for weeks or months. Thus, to improvise really well, you need to prepare extremely well, in advance, with total thoroughness. 

What do I mean? Let’s break it down a bit…


** When it comes to demo preparation, you gotta focus on the following:

– Master the exact narrative and functional sequence of the product demo, committing it to memory both verbally and physically. Knowing what to click and what happens next. This is absolutely fundamental, period.
– Rehearse the flow across multiple devices, platforms and browsers (as needed), and doing that in the exact room to be used in the exact location as well (front, back, etc.)
– Mirror exact environmental conditions as much as possible (lighting, sound, crowd level, video camera positioning, etc.). And don’t forget WiFi conditions too (or whatever internet and wireless tech). Set up all that in advance, and bring adapters, chargers, cables, etc.
– Prepare to give the main rationale for WHY (particularly in the case of executive/CEO demo feedback). Be ready to articulate the design decisions and abbreviated history of that decision, if possible. I often use stickies to help me abbreviate and commit to memory: Keep it Short & Simple.
– Dig up recent alternative designs, concepts, sketches and have that ready on a separate computer, iPad, printouts, etc. This requires presence of mind to recall that you have these ready if audience asks!


** When it comes to improvisation readiness, prepare for the following possibilities:

– Not immediately understanding the concept itself. Have several analogies and metaphors ready in mind that are commonplace, non-technical. Shift from professional demo speak, to folksy “aw shucks” manner which helps break most barriers.
– Deep skepticism about the concept’s relevance and value. Have use cases and stories ready to mention, and relate stories back to the audience! Ask them their similar problems that your concept could fix.
– Mix up your presentation with references to the weather, names of the customers in the audience, any small talk prior to the demo (like a customer’s kid is having a baseball game tonight) to add that special relationship touch.
– If devices and services break with technical snafus, do NOT apologize but instead keep vamping it! Keep a sketchbook or whiteboard handy to illustrate the concept in real-time.
– Always be ready to throw questions and discussions back to the audience (just like in improv games) to positively engage them, enabling a dialogue rather than a tense inquisition.
– If you’re really brave, ask audience to play with the demo or suggest “what shall I click on next” :-) But only if you’ve really got things working!

Through this mix of technical preparation and savvy improvisation, you’ll be able to deliver memorable and useful product concept demos. It definitely takes much practice and some luck too. Don’t forget to make the appropriate pleas & sacrifices to the demo gods beforehand!

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