The One Question Your Product Demo Should Answer

Wizard of Oz Experiments, Pixar, and Other Elements of Product Storytelling

Why do we demonstrate products?

Should we be demonstrating products?

What’s happening beneath the surface of an effective Product Demo? Where should we be focusing our energy when creating them?

What makes these things tick?

Steve Job’s memorable Product Demo of the original iPhone (Jan 2007)

Product Demos can do a lot of good for your products. But there is one specific result that a well-crafted Product Demo creates that far outweighs any others.

They answer the simple question:

What’s in it for them?


Direct the efforts of your Product Demo toward showing audiences why they care about your product with the three following steps.

Step 1: Wizard-of-Oz It

As Product People, it’s natural to want to show off our prized creations. We might cavalcade our products through the streets, if the marketing budget allowed it. But, alas, we have to get our kicks during the Engineering Demos, because the Product Demo is for the consumer. And the consumer doesn’t care about the hoops or scrums, sprints, long jumps or high jumps our teams had to go through to make these things.

They just want to know what’s in it for them.

A well-focused Product Demo demonstrates how a product can serve end users. It does not demonstrate the actual product, itself.

There’s a difference.

Watching how a product can serve end users is like watching a highlight reel. The latter can feel like being forced to sit through an entire sporting event in the span of your five-minute demo, if you make the audience follow you through every single screen within your app.

Keep things focused on what’s in it for the audience by crafting the Hero Case of your product. The ideal scenario in which an end user benefits from the product.

The Wizard of Oz (MGM, 1939

This is where Wizard of Oz Experiments come in. As many of us know, a Wizard of Oz Experiment is one in which the subject thinks the computer program their testing is autonomous, but is actually being operated by a hidden person. One of human’s greatest strengths is our ability to imagine. We’re able to vividly picture elaborate scenarios in our heads on a whim and can be so enthralled by these imaginary moving pictures that we forget where we are. Why get in the way of that?

Set up a presentation that transports the audience into the Hero Case. And don’t take them out of it with unnecessary distractions like logins and page loading screens.

Wizard-of-Oz It.

The audience’s ability to visualize themselves using the product will make this type of demo feel realer than the actual thing.

Step 2: Tailor the Hero Case to Every Audience

Just as users aren’t concerned with the inner-workings of a product, not all end users will have the same Hero Case with your product.

In a tweet I have saved, former Pixar Storyboard Artist Emma Coats shares advice about storytelling that bears similarity to this notion.

Just as writers and audience members will have different ideas about what’s interesting, individual audience members will have varying ideas about that, too.

Consider your audience and tailor that Hero Case you present to them to match their profiles. If you’re interviewing with a reporter or a journalist, cater it to their beat. They’ll be doing this later on anyways, so take control of how that message gets shaped. If you go on the air with a local radio host, tie in a hometown, or two.

XFINITY X1 Olympics Product Demo (2018)

And if you happen to be presenting the XFINITY X1 platform for the Olympics to a group of youth figure skaters in Nashville, who really love the twenty year old figure skater Bradie Tennell, it only makes sense to show them how to soak up every second of their hero’s possible screen time. Right?

Plus, there’ll be plenty of other chances to show off the rest of the marquee Olympians (e.g. Shaun White).

In a great piece in the First Round Blog a while back, Rob Falcone argued this in reference to startup pitches, “Your Product Demo Sucks Because It’s Focused on Your Product

Good demos don’t have to be perfect for the product. They have to be perfect for the audience.

Rob Falcone (2014)

Step 3: Storyboard The Hero Cases

I’m a big fan of Pixar. I value a lot of the concepts in Ed Catmull, the president and co-founder’s book on fostering creative environments; and I also just enjoy the sheer awesomeness of seeing a scene from the first Toy Story movie get pitched on a storyboard.

Watch Joe Ranft Storyboard Pitch a Scene from the Original Toy Story

When drafting up the Hero Cases to present in your demos, storyboarding can be a really useful tool. When you label each card that represents a scene, if you will, in a particular Hero Case; the words you write down on the card naturally become the script for the demo. It’s a helpful way to figure out how to paint the picture you want the audience to visualize.


In movies, we don’t usually see characters doing things like chores, or brushing their teeth. Myriad exceptions exist of course, but even the exceptions are intentional. The filmmakers include them to reveal something about the character, or to set up the next scene. But every scene that makes the final cut in a movie is necessary to the plot. And if a scene is not necessary to the plot, it’s cut.

Take a look at the script of your demos and see if any sections don’t pertain to the plot of your Hero. Anything unrelated to the Hero Case is a distraction.

Stay focused, and make it clear to the audience what’s in this for them.


Thanks for reading! Please comment anything I missed or approaches you’ve found to get audiences more engaged. And for more on the Art and Science of Product Demos, check out my field guide to demos:

3 Practices for Building Strong Presentations

Preston Smalley produced in collaboration with Mark Mizera

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