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

3 Practices for Building Strong Presentations

A Product Demo Field Guide

There’s a few components to a product demo. The content of the presentation itself. The nuts-and-bolt logistics of how you’ll physically present your content. And then there’s another aspect you have to plan for — the technical difficulties. The mishaps. The curve-balls.

The unexpected.

Though after having delivered a hundred some-odd product demos, these “unexpected issues” have taken a much more predictable air about them for me. In fact I’m pressed to think of a single presentation I’ve given where at least something didn’t go differently than planned.

We can’t know exactly what to expect during the course of a presentation. But we do know the general types of issues that arise, and we can position our presentations in a way that doesn’t allow these issues to unhinge them.

Below are three different ways to address the factors I’ve found to play a consistent role here. By using these frameworks when planning and producing a product demo, you can avoid a great deal of pitfalls that tend to surface while presenting.

3 Practices for Strong Product Demos

1. Limit the Variables

When planning a product demo, it’s understandable to want to “think big”. You want to wow your audience. Dazzle them. Give ‘em the real thing! And then before you know it, you’ve assembled a Rube Goldberg machine of moving parts. Variables that add extra degrees of risk in the successful execution of your demonstration.

But the thing is, the less moving parts you have in your presentation, the less opportunities there are for errors.

An elaborate show of function is not the aim of a product demo. Effectively communicating why a product is relevant, and how it can impact users should be the aim of a product demo.

Anything that jeopardizes that mission is a liability.

2. Establish Contingency Plans (and contingency plans for those too)

Once you’ve trimmed the fat of unnecessary variables, assess the remaining components and identify any possible stress points.

Play out all the scenarios in your head:

What if the WiFi network at a venue gets overloaded? Personal hotspot? Ethernet cable? Maybe I’d be better off using stored content, and not relying on having a connection at all.

What if the file gets lost? Cloud copy? Hard copy? USB Flash drive? USB-C adaptor for flash drive?

What if the device dies on stage? Backup device? Powered on, plugged in, with the demo up— standing by on another video input, just in case?
It only sounds paranoid until it doesn’t. Just ask Bill Gates…

Each demo has a unique environment and requires its own assessment. Creating an exhaustive set of contingency plans allows you to easily circumvent any “unexpected” malfunctions.

Establish and ready your plan B’s, C’s, and D’s (E’s and F’s if you have them). The more you have, the less stress you’re presentation will take on.

3. Improvise 

It’s true. Even with a structurally sound presentation, and an alphabet full of backup plans at your disposal. The best laid plans go awry.

But that’s okay. It’s part of the gig, really.

Stay loose.

Now, onstage, is not the time to be rigid. Stubbornly trying to execute your original plan, when circumstance calls for impromptu adjustments, will only make things worse.

Equip yourself with the advantage of expecting to improvise. Planning on it. Anticipating the moment when you’ll need to think on your feet, briefly.

By simply realizing beforehand that you’ll likely be called upon to make small adjustments throughout your presentation, you’ll enhance your ability to make small adjustments throughout your presentation. Everything from needing to do your demo in half the planned time, to adapting to glitches.

I can remember a product demo I gave where the audio wasn’t working. Naturally, the product being demo’ed had a feature that allowed the user to ask the device what song was playing. Well, given there was no audio the audience couldn’t hear the song playing. But instead of distracting the audience, from the feature itself, with our technical difficulty, I just talked around it.

Something to the effect of, “Now, if you hear a song you like, you can ask the device… and the song will appear on the screen.”

Looking back, maybe it was better that way. Maybe… by not having the song playing, the audience was able to focus on the feature more intently, rather than on the song itself.

Either way, the presentation was fine.

Improvisation is a small but useful tactic to the smooth execution of a product demo.

Hopefully these concepts seem obvious, in part, to most people. The concepts, themselves, are not the key here. The key, here, is deliberately integrating these features into the preparation and production process. When utilized as a cohesive playbook, these approaches can keep even the most sabotaging of issues from the audience’s attention.

Keeping the focus on the product.


Preston Smalley produced in collaboration with Mark Mizera

Getting Products out from under the MIDDLE of the Bell Curve and Exceeding Expectations (SVPMA)

Given the key role Product Managers play in creating the environment for their teams… what must they do to avoid the bell curve of mediocre products that unfortunately are the norm? I shared my perspective as the guest speaker at the SVPMA (Sept 3, 2014) based on my own experiences and other authors/speakers that I trust.

Presenting @ SVPMA

I discussed specific ways to set clear goals and establish the right metrics. Dipping into my eBay days, I shared a little known story of the importance of asking for forgiveness rather than permission in driving innovation that resulted in the launch of the eBay iPhone app.

Some other takeaways from this talk include:

  • How to focus on the right, few, customer adoption metrics (e.g. AAARR). More is often not better and can distract from the main goal
  • How defining your product’s purpose often improves working relationships with designers and engineers so you aren’t left arguing about the “what” or the “how
  • How to avoid getting in the executive micromanagement web especially if they are distracted by the “flavor of the month” or “pet feature” ideas
  • How to drive stealth projects or go through quick business case or product prototyping within a big company.

I was pleased to host the event at Comcast Silicon Valley where I work.

A full review of the talk posted on the SVPMA website.

Speaking @ SVPMA on Sept 3

I’m speaking at the Silicon Valley Product Management Association next month on the topic “Getting Products out from under the MIDDLE of the Bell Curve and Exceeding Expectations”.

In my talk I’ll discuss how Product Managers play a profound role in creating the environment around product development teams. I’ll explore various ways they can influence these products to move up from mediocrity and how to avoid micromanagement and “flavor of the month” feature ideas.

I’ll discuss specific ways to set clear goals and establish the right metrics. Dipping into my eBay days, I’ll share a little known story of the importance of asking for forgiveness rather than permission in driving innovation.

Some other takeaways from this talk will include:

  • How to focus on the right, few, customer adoption metrics (e.g. AAARR). More is often not better and can distract from the main goal
  • How defining your product’s purpose often improves working relationships with designers and engineers so you aren’t left arguing about the “what” or the “how
  • How to avoid getting in the executive micromanagement web especially if they are distracted by the “flavor of the month” or “pet feature” ideas
  • How to drive stealth projects or go through quick business case or product prototyping within a big company

In addition to speaking, we’ll be hosting the event at our Comcast Silicon Valley Innovation Center in Sunnyvale.

Join me and RSVP for the Event

Event: Sept 3rd from 6:30 – 9:30

Running an Innovation Center at a Fortune 500 Company

I recently spoke on how to run an innovation center within a large company at both the Lean Startup conference in SF and the Strategic Planning Innovation Summit in NYC. As part of the leadership team running the Comcast Silicon Valley Innovation Center, I’ve learned a lot about what works and what doesn’t especially within a BIG company.

How can you apply Lean Startup principles at your company? I have 6 pieces of advice:

  1. Ask for forgiveness, not permission
    The eBay mobile app almost didn’t get built as the mobile team was restructured away shortly before Apple announced the App Store in 2008. By “hiding” a small team of people building MVP (Alan Lewis, Ken Sun, Karlyn Neal) enough momentum was established that the Exec team went along.
  2. Build credibility thru projects–then scale
    The Comcast Silicon Valley Innovation Center was built out of an earlier acquisition made a couple years earlier in Plaxo. By running projects under the Plaxo brand and then Comcast Labs, credibility in the approach was established with the executive team. Over time its scaled to include higher profile projects, such as SEEiT.
  3. Don’t just swing for homeruns
    We take a VC mindset for “funding” concepts at the center. Ideas can come from anywhere (often Hack Days) and get evaluated using a Lean Canvas. Receiving “Seed” funding means we might assign a few engineers for a month or so. If they prove their hypothesis they might get “Series A” funding where they could build an MVP. Meanwhile we’re always looking for an “exit” which could be an “acquisition” from another internal business unit–so a solid “double” in baseball helps offset the “strikeouts” that might occur.
  4. Adapt Lean Canvas for your company
    I adapted Ash Maurya’s Lean Canvas to better fit within the enterprise. Cost included the number of FTEs / time and Revenue includes indirect improvements to retention/acquisition. Finally a new cell was added for “Strategic Fit” which evaluates how well the concept fits within the corporate strategy and who on the Exec team will sponsor it.
    leancanvas_adapted
  5. Watch out for corporate antibodies
    Organizations are just like the body and will attack what they see as “foreign objects” (different ways of doing things). You need to be aware of who’s toes you might be stepping on and building allies at the exec level is important. It’s also helpful to understand resource allocation is often a “zero-sum-game” so don’t scale your resources too fast or they become a target for others looking for funding.
  6. Use vanity metrics (but don’t believe them)
    As you analyze using rate-based metrics that ruthlessly look at acquisition, activity, and retention is the only way to go. However its important that you present your product fairly alongside others at the company. Shining a bright light on all things wrong with your project may not give you the time you need to pivot and get it where you want it to go. So occasionally, its useful to share “vanity metrics” alongside the equivalents of other products at your company. 😉

Here’s some of my favorite tweets about my talk:

Photo taken by @RedHatInnovate

Photo taken by @RedHatInnovate

https://twitter.com/IE_ClaireW/status/408634548432691200

As with the rest of this blog, the above are my personal views and not that my employer. 

Why Design Matters – P&G

I recently was invited to speak at P&G headquarters in Ohio on “Why Design Matters”. It was a leadership summit of their Global Business Services division which supports all the brands and employees worldwide. For me it was a great chance to reflect on what aspects I see as critical to design and what can get in the way.

Here are the slides. I plan on adding the audio slidecast soon.
UPDATE 6/15: Slidecast now available.

View more presentations from Preston Smalley.