Great Demo! Virtual Demos Best Practices - Great Demo

Great Demo! Virtual Demos Best Practices

Want a Horror Story?

I’ll give you a teaser: The punchline is, “Nope, I’m good…”

I watch dozens of recorded virtual demos from my prospects and customers. Sadly, most of these demos are traditional show-up-and-throw-up Harbor Tours. Occasionally, some demos stand out as particularly poor. Here’s the story:

A customer shared two recorded demos with me, each 1-hour long, presented to their typical prospects. These two examples had the same storyline and the only difference between them was the verbal style of delivery. The content and the sequence of steps in each demo were exactly alike. We had scheduled for me to see one more demo, but this one was live.

I connected with the vendor rep online at the agreed-upon time. He shared his desktop and asked, “Can you see my screen?” I replied, “I believe so…”

He said, “Great!” and dived into his demo. I realized he was following exactly the same pathway and talk track as his two predecessors. After eight minutes of talking and clicking he surfaced and asked, “Any questions so far?”

“Nope, I’m good…” I replied.

He dived back into his demo and continued for another eight minutes, then resurfaced again and asked, “Any questions so far?”

I responded, “No, I’m good…” With that, he again dived back into his talk track. This process, with the eight-minute “talk” portions repeated…

Now before continuing with this story, some additional background info is required:

  1. I had turned off my video sharing to deal with bandwidth issues, which meant that he couldn’t see what I was doing during the demo; and
  2. I time demos, or more specifically, I time how long the vendor talks before eliciting a response from the prospect. Talk:Listen info from the various web collaboration tools is terrific, but this was a live demo.

Seeing an opportunity, I said to myself, “I have to run this experiment!”

Immediately after his most recent “Any questions so far?” query, I grabbed my tea mug, left my office and went to the kitchen. I refreshed my tea, looked out at the view for a few minutes, and relaxed for a bit. At the 7-minute mark I returned to my office and sure enough, about one minute later, what do you think happened?

He resurfaced and asked, “Any questions so far?”

“Nope, I’m good…” was my response.

So, what is the horrifying thing about this? He had no idea I was physically gone for that segment!

The demo was going perfectly, as far as he was concerned, but his audience was literally gone. He had no clue that I had left the room (and the demo)!

Want Another Horror Story?

Imagine that you are the prospect, on the receiving end of a vendor’s live demo over the web. The vendor starts with a few corporate and product overview slides, and during this someone comes into your office. You mute the audio and chat with your colleague for a few minutes. They leave and your attention returns to the slides.

Moments later, the vendor rep asks, inevitably, “Any questions so far?”

You reply, “Nope, I’m good…” but you’re already a bit bored.

After another few minutes of listening listlessly, an email drops into your inbox that you want to read. You open it and respond, then idly investigate the balance of your inbox while the demonstrator’s voice drones on about, “Another really nice thing about our software is that everything is configurable – I’ll show you that now…”

Annnnnd you’ve tuned out…!

Does this sound familiar? Has this demo made a strong positive impression with you? Likely not!

Now let’s turn these examples around: Imagine that it is you or your organization delivering these demos to your prospects. Ouch! What can be done to improve virtual demos?

Here are twelve terrific tips:

  1. Learn the Technology: We rarely try something new in front of a prospect…

Before you start a web session with a prospect, get comfortable with the tool that you use (and the tools within that tool). Set up an exploration and practice session with a colleague from your own company. Invest thirty minutes to investigate and experience the capabilities available. That way, you will be able to deploy and apply these tools confidently when you are live with a prospect.

The first step is to assess the capabilities that are available. Does your tool offer:

  • Options for screen sharing (e.g., one window vs full desktop, pause and resume)?
  • Screen layout and organization options?
  • Whiteboard capabilities?
  • Annotation capabilities?
  • Annotation capabilities for the audience?
  • Chat dialogue?
  • Dedicated Q&A area?
  • Video display options?
  • Display backgrounds choices?
  • Audio input/output/mute options?
  • Emoji or other reactions?
  • Audience entry management?
  • Participant management?
  • Breakout rooms?
  • Recording capabilities?
  • Integration with other apps?
  • What else does it offer?

Now, try them out! For the first fifteen minutes of your test run, explore and try all of the various capabilities available and get feedback from your colleague. Then switch and let your coworker explore for the next fifteen minutes.

In particular, practice using the annotation capabilities. Some tools currently offer a rich set of lines, colors, shapes and text (e.g., Zoom). Others may lack this capability (in which you should explore using a 3rd party add-on tool).

Now you’ve been exposed to what is possible and can apply these options in real demos (and discovery calls, presentations, and other over-the-web interactions).

  1. Test the Technology: Avoid “Gee, I don’t know why this isn’t working…”

For any substantive web demo or online meeting, reach out to your key contact, champion, or a colleague who will also be on the call, and suggest that you start the web session five to ten minutes before the formal meeting is scheduled to begin.

Use those minutes to check screen sharing, latency, screen resolution, color rendering, sound level and clarity, and font readability. Latency can be surprisingly long in some situations. I’ll tell my contact, “OK, I’m going to say 3-2-1 ‘click’ and then advance the slide – please tell me when you see it.”

Note that this dialogue, prior to starting the demo, also begins to train your prospect that the demo will be a conversation.

Another check to consider is the size of your mouse cursor. The default size (on both Mac and Windows) tends to be quite small. I generally recommend increasing the size about 2x and choosing a filled-in version, rather than just the outline.

Along similar lines, if you are using a large screen monitor and you are presenting to people with smaller screens, your display will be squeezed down to fit your prospects’. Your software’s text size may appear very small and hard to read, so you may need to change your screen resolution to address this. Test it to make sure!

Finally, when operating in a browser, go into full-screen mode. This removes the toolbars and tabs from the top, and the bottom ribbons as well, giving you as much as 14% more screen for your software. Additionally, it reduces perceived complexity, as there are fewer buttons, tabs, and commands in view.

  1. Apply the Technology: Avoid the “Gosh this is boring” prospect perception…

Most vendors assume that delivering a virtual demo is nothing more than “Can you see my screen?” followed by click and talk, click and talk. Sadly, this is insufficient to hold audience attention!

Drive interactivity by actually using the tools that the folks at the various toolmakers have implemented for your enjoyment:

  • Use the annotation tools (including pens, shapes, stamps, arrows and more). The act of a new, unanticipated drawing or graphic appearing on the screen grabs your audience’s attention and wakes them up. Drawing a circle or dragging a rectangle around a screen element attracts your audience’s eyes to exactly what you want them to see;
  • Invite your prospect to use the annotation tools, if they have questions about specific portions of the screen;
  • The participants’ panes typically display the names of the attendees: Use their names when responding to questions and comments;
  • Use the whiteboard capabilities and enable your prospect to draw when the opportunity arises – doing Workflow Analysis is one example;
  • For larger groups, particularly if the audience is muted, use the Chat or Q&A dialogs to drive a conversation with your audience;
  • The pause button is a wonderful tool that most people are completely unaware of: When Pause is “on”, it continues to show the last screen you were sharing, enabling you to do anything you want without the audience seeing it! You can restart an app, open or close files, clean up your desktop, read your own email… When you are ready to share your screen again, simply un-pause. Delightful!
  • Video offers a range of options. You can use your video pane to gesture and communicate your personality. I’ve “given” audience members pieces of paper and other objects by virtually passing them through the webcam. Invite your audience members to share their video as well so that you can watch their reactions and attention. You can consider calling people by name who may have become distracted, “Pat, what are your thoughts about using this function?”
  • Look them in their eyes… Wait, what? Your webcam operates the same way a movie camera does, capturing your head, torso and background. If you are looking down at your keyboard or the lower portion of your screen, you look to your audience like you are looking down, as well. When you have a key idea to communicate look directly at your webcam. This makes it appear to your audience that you are looking right at them! Julie Hansen’s terrific book, Look Me In the Eye offers additional ideas and guidance on connecting with your audience over the web;
  • Let your prospect drive…! This is non-obvious, but hugely engaging: Invite your prospect to drive certain portions of the demo. You can manage the risk by employing your champion and practicing prior to the session. Few things wake up an audience like having one of their own members driving the software!
  • There may be other capabilities that emerge as tools vendors improve their products: Explore them, test them, and use them!
  1. Put Passion into Your Delivery: Avoid audience “Zzzzzz…”

Nothing says “boredom” like a flat, passionless voice droning on endlessly…

You may need to compensate for the inability of your audience to see more than your head and torso by injecting more energy and dynamics into your verbal delivery. Some presenters prefer to stand when delivering a web demo to help with this.

Take a lesson from musicians: Modulate your voice from loud to soft for impact, apply crescendos to build tension, and the take advantage of the power of the pause. These methods add drama to your delivery. (Wind instrument players and vocalists will recognize, “Push from your diaphragm…” to project your voice.)9

Passion does not necessarily mean speaking rapidly! In fact, you may find that slowing down your delivery and choosing your words with care has more positive impact than trying to cram as much as possible into the available time!

For folks in the U.S.: Be aware of your audience’s geo location, as well. The use of North American metaphors may not resonate with international audiences. Similarly, plan to use more “international” English and avoid local colloquialisms. After all, that dog don’t hunt (see what I did there?).

  1. Video View: “Oh, that’s an interesting background…”

Be aware of what your background looks like and the lighting on your face, in particular. I’ve seen folks delivering demos who appeared to be facing sideways! Clearly, they were working from two monitors, with their webcam on one monitor and their software on another.

If you are presenting from an office, assess what your audiences sees behind you. Clean and simple is best; consider including one or two relevant or interesting objects as conversation starters, such as a favorite book or two (I’d suggest Great Demo! and Doing Discovery – I know the author!).

If you are using a virtual background, check to make sure it appears clean and doesn’t suffer from fuzziness – those of us with unruly hair may do better with no virtual background.

Additionally, in most virtual demos, presenters turn on their video and leave it on for the duration. If your audience has limited screen “real estate” they may find themselves watching your face rather than viewing your software. Consider the following as a solution:

Your Video ON: During introductions, to help “personalize” the demo. It’s a real person presenting, not a disembodied voice;

Your Video OFF: While sharing your software screens, so that your audience is focusing on your software. With your video on, they may be watching you rather than your software;9

Your Video ON: For your interim summaries, Q&A, and your final summary.9

  1. Move Your Mouse Smooooothly and Deliberately: Avoid “Zippy Mouse Syndrome…”99

When we mouse for ourselves, the cursor follows where our eyes are looking, resulting, in many cases, in the cursor zooming wildly around the screen. This is actually painful for many viewers!9

Along the same lines, have you ever seen someone circle something endlessly with their cursor…? Solution? “Move and Stop”.

I’ve found the most amazing principle: If you take your hand off of the mouse, the cursor stops moving. Yes!  Incredible! Move the mouse to where you want it to be, then take your hand off while you talk. It doesn’t move!

When navigating in a demo, find the target location on the screen with your eyes before you move your mouse, then navigate your mouse smoothly to the new location. Then let go of the mouse! Do not circle the location around and around and around and around…

This is the perfect time to use an annotation tool to highlight the area on the screen, while you describe the what the capability does, how it helps the prospect address their business problems, and communicate the value associated with using the capability.

  1. Drive Interactivity: Avoid the “chirp chirp chirp” sound of crickets in an empty room…

Most traditional demos try to pack as much into the hour as possible, while simultaneously telling the audience, “Please ask questions along the way to make this as interactive as possible…”

Unfortunately, these two objectives are mutually exclusive, and many demonstrators really don’t want any questions, as those questions will consume precious time needed to show the many capabilities in their software. This gets worse with every release as more features are added.

What’s the rescue for this dilemma? Great Demo! methodology provides some terrific answers:

  1. Do the Last Thing First (as opposed to “saving the best for last…”);
  2. Use Inverted Pyramid (to ensure you cover the most important things);
  3. Execute every pathway using the Fewest Number of Clicks (to reduce apparent complexity).

A study of demos by found that the most successful demos applied these three principles. Additionally, the most successful demos had speaker switches on an average of every 76 seconds. (A “speaker switch” is a change from the vendor talking to the prospect speaking and vice versa.)

This doesn’t mean that every 76 seconds you need some response from your audience, but it does tell you that if you’ve been presenting for 4 or 5 minutes or longer without a speaker switch, you need to stop, pause, and drive that interaction. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Summarize frequently: This also cues the audience that it is their turn to ask questions;
  • Check-in frequently: Use phrases such as, “Comments or questions?” or “What do you think of what you’ve seen so far?” and “Does that address your requirements sufficiently?”
  • Test the latency periodically: Here’s a great mid-demo check. Tell your audience, “I’m going to say ‘3-2-1 click’, then please let me know when you see the graphic appear…” This (gently, but firmly) forces your audience to engage;
  • Check for specific attention: “Can you see my mouse pointing at the logo?”
  • Use the highlighters, arrows, pens and other annotation tools periodically;
  • Highlight text (drag across text to reverse highlight): This is a simple and very effective highlighting technique;
  • When driving interaction with larger audiences: Have them raise their virtual hands, communicate reactions, and use the Chat/Q&A dialogs to respond to your questions and enable questions or comments from them. You often can “riff” off of Chat comments to encourage more contributions and reward those who participate.
  1. Use an Agenda: And avoid your prospect wondering, “Where is this going…?”

In Great Demo! methodology, we teach breaking a demo up into consumable chunks. It turns out that the typical adult human can pay attention for about 10 minutes before they need to be “refreshed” in some way. Accordingly, in a sixty-minute demo you should have (at least!) six chunks – more would be better.

What’s a “refresh”? Anything that resets your audience’s brains! When a person asks a question, they get refreshed and you get another ten minutes of their attention. A great way to refresh is to use an agenda and return to it at the end of each chunk to summarize, pause for questions or comments, and then introduce the next chuck or agenda topic.

Some vendor teams present an agenda at the beginning of a demo, and that’s good. Much better is to present the agenda, deliver your first segment, and then return to your agenda to summarize and check for questions or feedback: You gain an audience refresh. This also helps drive interactivity by providing “space” for questions and observations in between your chunks.

Sharing your agenda at the end of each chunk also gives you the opportunity to introduce the next chunk, as well. “Tell them what you are going to tell them, tell them, then tell them what you told them.” Thanks, Aristotle!

Repeat this process for each segment of your demo and return to your agenda for your final summary.

  1. Use An “Active Conduit”: Give yourself eyes in the meeting…

Have you ever delivered a demo over the web to a roomful of people, but you only could see one person or a small subset of the audience? When you are in these or similar situations, designate someone to be your “eyes” for the meeting: An “Active Conduit” providing information to you on what is happening in the meeting room.

In the best case, use your salesperson or other colleague from your company. Next best is your champion or key contact.

Start the session a few minutes early and guide this person to help you:

  • Test and confirm the technology is operating correctly: All the checks from Item 2 above;
  • Manage introductions: Have them go around the room to help you capture each participant’s name, job title and objectives;
  • Communicate tone and how things are going;
  • Alert you when new people arrive, or people leave;
  • Alert you when someone has a question or comment;
  • Manage (and repeat) questions for you (this is a really good one…!);
  • Alert you to side-bar discussions or comments that you can’t hear.
  1. Clean Up Your Desktop and Alerts: And avoid the embarrassing, “Ohhhh, my!” moments…

It can be amusing to audience members to see email previews and other messages appearing on the presenter’s screen during a demo, but it is distracting and can be downright embarrassing!

Want another horror story?

I was watching a virtual demo a while ago, when one of the prospect team members asked a question. The salesperson texted the presenter the message, “Ignore that question – that guy is an idiot!” Sadly, the salesperson didn’t realize that this text might appear on the screen for all to see – and it did!

End of demo, end of sales cycle…

Moral? Turn off your alerts as much as possible and/or limit screen sharing to the apps necessary.

An additional tip: for those of you with dozens of icons on your desktop, consider hiding them or using an alternative desktop for your demos. A desktop that looks like a corp overview “logo slide” tells the audience, “This will be complicated!”

  1. Manage Questions: Parking professionally…

Consider using a Word, Google or similar document to capture parked questions during your demo. Show the audience that you have written the question down (remember to share that portion of your screen) and confirm you have captured it correctly. Using Chat is another good method – just remember to make sure Chat is saved when exiting the tool!

Bonus: For documents, you can use strike-through text to mark questions that you addressed in the session. This will give you a written record of which questions are closed, and which are still pending. It also provides you with an elegant tool for your final summary.

  1. Get Better: “But I hate the sound of my own voice…!”

The first time most of us hear our own voice played back from a recording, we are appalled: “Aaaagh! Do I really sound like that?” Once we get through that, we can learn a great deal by recording our web sessions and playing them back.

This is a wonderful way to hear what you actually said and how you said it: Your “crutch” words (“um”, “erm”, “actually”, etc.), your pace, your tone, your word choices, pauses, and summaries.

  • Did you provide introductions for each chunk and summarize at the end? Did you include pauses for your audience to engage with questions or comments?
  • How long were your longest non-stop speaking segments? What was your average speaker-switch time?
  • Were you speaking at a comfortable pace for your audience? Were your word choices, analogies and metaphors consistent with their geographic and cultural norms?
  • How well did you manage questions? Did you cut off your prospect or let them complete their query? Did you dig deeper to uncover the “why” behind their question? Did you confirm you’d addressed the question adequately?
  • When you presented key screens, did you remember to describe what your audience was seeing, how it helps them solve their business problems, and how much value is associated with making the change?
  • How was your mousing? Was it smooth and deliberate or are you suffering (like me!) from Zippy Mouse Syndrome?
  • Were the handoffs between you and your colleagues smooth and professional?
  • What sections of your demo resonated most strongly with your prospect?
  • Were there any surprises (positive or negative)?
  • Did you achieve your objective for the demo? More important, did you enable your prospect to achieve their objectives for the meeting?

What did you do well? What could you do better next time?

The list above also represents a team-based post-demo assessment. Same questions, but for your selling team as a whole.

Twelve Terrific Tips

Learning, practicing and applying these twelve tips will (rather markedly) improve the mechanics of your virtual demos.

Pick one item to try each week and in a few months, you’ll be surprisingly effective…!


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To learn the methods introduced above, consider enrolling in a Great Demo! Doing Discovery or Demonstration Skills Workshop. For more demo and discovery tips, best practices, tools and techniques, explore our blog and articles on the Resources pages and join the Great Demo! LinkedIn Group to share your experiences and learn from others.

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