The Demo Crime Files!

  • Written By:
  • Published:


Originally published - November 7, 2001

Please forgive me. I'm normally optimistic and maintain a positive outlook. This article, however, is devoted to the negative aspects of demonstrations. It's important to point out the common "crimes" made in demonstrations because most people don't recognize them.

Just like in real life, some crimes are minor offenses while others carry the death penalty. I'm not suggesting any demo crime is acceptable. Crimes aren't acceptable in society, nor should they be when demonstrating software. However, unlike in society, there are no pre-established right and wrong demonstration crimes.

I used to end my demonstrations by asking my audience, "How do you think it went today?" Early in my career, they'd typically respond, "You did a good job in describing what your software does." For years, I thought they were giving me a compliment. In some ways they were. After all, I taught them a great deal about my software. They understood how it worked. However, when I would find out a few weeks later that I didn't even make the shortlist of finalists, I was always stunned. When I'd ask why, a typical reply went something like, "Well, no specific reason. We liked you and your company. Your product was good, but the other products just seemed to fit us better." This is hardly a satisfying answer! Where do you begin to improve your product, services, company, or approach based upon a politically safe comment like that?

Can you relate to this story? If you can, your prospect is telling you that you're a good teacher, but someone else made a connection. Your competitor got them excited. It helped your prospect cross the “Bridge” to its system (see Improving Your Demo-to-Win Ratio: Bridge Building). Your software was in black and white, while your competitor's was in color! But be aware that most prospects won't point out your crimes.

Finding Out What Went Wrong

You have to be lucky enough to have a prospect like Al Jones. Al was a prospect of mine in Atlanta, Georgia (US). His company was on a system search, and he knew the potential our software offered compared to my competitors. Unfortunately, my competitor handed me my hat in the demonstration. Al was kind enough to point out to me why I almost lost the sale. I've never forgotten the lesson.

Here's what he told me: "Bob, you have a much better product than your competitor, and I think it would serve us much better. However, the users think the competitor walks on water because he really understands our business. He provided specific solutions to our everyday struggles." Al went on to give me an example of a situation my competitor used in a demonstration. They asked the users, "Have you ever cut a 12-foot copper pipe and wondered what you were going to do with the remnant? Well, with our product you simply ..."

Al explained, "Bob, you guys are demonstrating widgets and ABC companies, while the competition is talking in our lingo. The users simply can't relate to your software."

Bingo! That was a turning point for me. From that moment on, I've always focused on bringing each prospect's business, products, and situations into my demonstrations.

This article, one of a series of articles to help vendors improve their demonstrations so they will win, points out three crimes often committed during software product demonstrations. Don't be concerned with how many times you can relate to the crimes in this article. Highlight your problem areas and focus on correcting them one at a time. The following crimes are a sampling of the 28 I've witnessed (or committed) over the past 20 years.

I Love This Part of Our Software

Pretend for a moment you sell a very powerful general ledger system for small to medium sized corporations. One of the most powerful features of your general ledger system is its ability to produce sophisticated budgets. You know ahead of time that none of your competitors have anywhere near your budgeting capabilities. In fact, you happen to know firsthand that this feature is usually what earns you an order when the dust settles and the smoke clears.

You also know your prospect, a computer networking company, doesn't currently produce budgets, nor do they plan to in the future. You've just finished a demonstration of your general ledger system and Bill, the chief financial officer (CFO), was thoroughly impressed with your system. You have 15 minutes of allotted time remaining. You can summarize the demonstration and attempt to close the order, or you can show your budgeting capabilities. You decide now is the time to bring in your big guns.

"Bill," you begin, "one of the things I love about our software is the ability to produce, manipulate, report, and graph budgets. Many of our customers think this is the feature that makes our software better than all the others!" Of course, Bill is thinking, "Really? Well, you idiot, we don't budget at this company and never will, and you're beginning to annoy me." After five minutes, Bill reminds you once again that they don't budget.

"Bill, I understand you don't budget today, but if you ever decide to start, we have an awesome system for budgeting. Let me show you some more." You proceed to show him the graphs and comparison reports. You think you're on a roll. Of course, Bill is fuming because you've basically told him he's an idiot for not budgeting and insisted on ignoring his request. No matter how you summarize your demonstration, you've lost Bill as an advocate.

Rather than forcing a product feature or idea on a prospect, rearrange your presentation and strategy. Granted, you always want to demonstrate something that allows you to finish strong. However, it needs to be a feature that's meaningful to the prospect. Ignore demonstrating the features you love and focus on features your prospect thinks are important. This bridge-demonstrating technique will go a long way toward getting your prospect excited about your software.


Software demonstrators are the masters of technobabble. We speak in meaningless computer jargon. Those of us in the software industry don't realize how much confusing jargon we throw at a prospect. Every industry has it, but none more so than the computer and software industry. If you think it impresses your prospect to spew this industry garbage, you're sorely mistaken.

Assume you're about to spend the day demonstrating your order entry system to a prospect. In the room are the executive vice president of operations, the director of information systems, the CFO, and the vice president of sales.

You open your day with, "Our demonstration today will start with a company overview. Then we'll demonstrate our OE module and show you how it will address the needs of your service department. Finally, we'll cover how our MSESC will install your NT server with TCP/IP to support your existing frame/relay network."

As you spew this out, you're thinking, "This is great! I'm going to nail this one because none of my competitors can do all this." Meanwhile, your prospect is thinking, "I wonder if this is going to take all day. I need to remember to pick up the kids right at 5:00 or the daycare will fine me."

You're assuming the executive vice president for operations is paying close attention to you. In reality, he's thinking, "What does OE stand for? What in the world is an MSESC? Who is NT and why do they need a TCP/IP?" Do you think this person is going to stop you and ask for clarification in front of all the people who report to him? Of course he won't. He's not going to risk the embarrassment of not knowing what all these terms mean. More important, why would you ever want the opening of a presentation to contain information your audience has to guess the meaning of? Your opening needs to be clear, concise, and powerful. It must be attention-grabbing and it must pique your prospect’s interest.

It's easy to make the mistake of thinking everyone knows the meaning of acronyms like OE, MSESC, NT, and TCP/IP. Should you risk it? No way! Skip the computer jargon and speak in the prospect's language. Prospects can relate to and understand their language, but not your jargon. Their company, industry, or personal "speak" may contain jargon, but at least it's their jargon. Using their lingo, especially early in the demo, will help you connect with your prospect. Using your jargon will alienate them.

I challenge you to figure out how often you desensitize your audience by using technobabble. Here's a suggestion: Videotape yourself in a demonstration and spend time documenting all the jargon, acronyms, words, and phrases. For each one, come up with a term that's easier for anybody in your audience to understand. I guarantee your prospect will relate to your non-technobabble terms long after you've left its parking lot.

Include in this exercise the way you describe your support and implementation staff positions. Your prospect needs to feel as if your staff will become part of its organization, and not a group of technical outsiders. A common mistake demonstrators make is to describe their own people using acronyms. For example, a system consultant is an SC, a software integration person is an SI. Avoid referring to people in your organization by anything other than his or her proper title. Your prospects can relate to your team members' full titles, but once you make their titles an acronym, they'll view them as outsiders.

A technique I use to introduce the people behind my product is to prepare a short resume about each of them that includes their job experience, something on a more personal level (interests, hobbies, etc.), and a digital picture. This makes your team real people, and not technocrats who could never relate to the prospect's needs.

Clean out your closet. Use alternative language your prospects can relate to and understand. Then make a point of practicing it before your next demonstration. They'll appreciate it, and you'll get them one more step across the Bridge.

Who Was That Masked Man?

Imagine demonstrating a feature in your software. Now, imagine your competitors doing the same thing. If you have decent competition and you're honest with yourself, you'll realize that for the majority of your features, there's probably not a whole lot of difference.

Now consider your prospect's situation. After three demonstrations of basically the same stuff, they're going to find it hard to remember who can do what. Here's a nightmare for you. I actually lost a deal once because my prospect attributed one of my killer features to my competitor who didn't even have that feature in their software! The prospect just couldn't remember whose software did what. To them it was all a blur. So, what can you do to prevent this from happening? Remember our earlier discussion about demonstration themes? They are the ticket to helping your prospect connect and remember you and your product.

Here's an example. One of the systems I sold included a powerful purchase order forecasting capability. Unfortunately, we often walked away from demonstrations without this feature having made a truly memorable impression with our prospects. This was especially true with our junior salespeople.

With the help of a coworker, Ross Jacobson, I implemented a theme for the purchase order forecasting segment of our demonstration. We thought about what we wanted to project and the audience we were addressing. The image we were after was one of sophistication, maturity, and innovation. Since our customers sold to the construction industry (their customers included plumbers, electricians, carpenters, etc.), we wanted a theme that was building-oriented.

We chose the theme "Form Follows Function," a concept made famous by the world-renowned architect Frank Lloyd Wright. The basic principle behind "Form Follows Function" is this: the function of a building (how it is used) should determine the form it takes (how it is constructed). Let's assume it's a home. Will it be occupied by working adults, small children, or senior citizens? Will somebody be in the house all day, or only in the evenings and on weekends? Is there something about the surrounding environment that should be taken advantage of? Is it wooded, prairie, city street, or country? Frank Lloyd Wright believed all these factors should be taken into consideration when designing and building the home.

Because our prospects were in the construction industry, they understood and respected this concept. So, we applied the concept to our software by asking the question, "Shouldn't the form of your purchasing system be determined by the people that use it (your purchasing managers and buyers)? Absolutely! That's why we've designed our system to ..."

We went on to wrap this theme around our purchasing system. As often as possible, we tied features and benefits back to our Form Follows Function theme. We used graphics related to architecture in our PowerPoint slides. Our prospects related to the theme and the material. It all clicked for them. Because the theme made it easy for them to remember, prospects started perceiving our salespeople—even junior staff members—as leaders in this area. We firmly planted an image in the prospect's minds that our competition simply could not replace. Themes are powerful and important to presentations. Use them and you'll be remembered.


Respected professionals like doctors, lawyers, and accountants are required to participate in continuing education every year. Every professional sport has a training camp where players practice fundamental skills before the season begins. Teams and individuals practice throughout a season to ensure their fundamentals remain sharp. Why expect anything less from our profession? Commit yourself to continuing education and practice. Constantly drill yourself on demo crimes. Look for outside help and expertise to improve your demonstration techniques and processes. It's only through a constant personal commitment to continuing education that you will remain crime-free.

About The Author

Bob Riefstahl has performed hundreds of demonstrations to all sizes of companies and audiences throughout his career. His firm, 2WIN!® Global, offers workshops, consulting, and professional speaking to technology companies around the world. This article is from his book Demonstrating To Win!, available through Riefstahl can be reached at

comments powered by Disqus