by Bill Flury

The Demo No One Could See and Get

In February 2008, the director of advertising for the Google-owned video service, YouTube, was unable to play a single one of her videos during her presentation. Her speech began with a jerky start while she waited for the introductory video to roll, but she gracefully ad-libbed with a recruiting pitch before giving up on that video.

Later she tried to highlight a video of an ad by Heinz as an example of viral advertising but it, too, failed to display on the big screens. She had to describe the video with words instead. Over and over, the videos sprinkled through her speech failed to appear on the screens.

“This is a little comical because this is YouTube and so far we’ve shown no videos,” she said at one point. “It’s also comical because this is now the technology industry association”.

The system worked fine later, however, when local companies up for the awards were featured in short video clips. Of course, by then, the folks who were supposed to see it were no longer present.

The rules for demos are no different from those for everything else – What you see is what you get. In the YouTube demo the audience didn’t see what the presenter wanted to show. What they saw was an embarrassing failed attempt to claim technical excellence.

What they didn’t see, they didn’t get.

Crash Demo Crashes

At a media event in Sweden, Volvo chose to demonstrate its latest technology: the new collision detection system on the S60. In this system, sensors in the car detect obstacles in the road ahead, applying the brakes to slow or even stop the car before a big crunchy mess occurs. A fine idea… so long as it works.

Volvo’s engineers started up the car, pointed it at a truck, released the unmanned S60 from its hutch at a speed of just under 30 miles per hour, sat back and …………………. it smacked into the truck.

The collision detection system had worked perfectly several times before the crash. Volvo blamed the failure of the technology on a battery issue. They lamely claimed that this would have been easily spotted by a human driver.

What they hoped everyone would see was a state-of-the-art collision avoidance system. What the audience actually saw was the effectiveness of the S60’s crash structures. Maybe it wasn’t all bad.

In the Volvo demo the audience did see a demo of the crash-worthiness of the car but the overall claim of technical superiority was seriously undermined.

What they saw made them buy something else.

Steve Jobs iPhone Demo at MacWorld 2007

In earlier demos of new Apple products Steve had experienced many problems so, for this one he took some extraordinary steps.

Steve opened by saying: “Every once in a while, a revolutionary product comes along that changes everything”. However, he knew that what he was about to demonstrate had lots of problems that could kill the effectiveness of the demo.

At the current stage of development, the iPhone could play a section of a song or a video, but it couldn’t play an entire clip reliably without crashing. It worked fine if you sent an e-mail and then surfed the Web. If you did those things in reverse, however, it might not. Hours of trial and error had helped the iPhone team develop what engineers called “the golden path,” a specific set of tasks, performed in a specific way and order that made the phone look as if it worked.

Steve had AT&T, the iPhone’s wireless carrier, bring in a portable cell tower, so they knew reception would be strong. Then, with Jobs’s approval, they preprogrammed the phone’s display to always show five bars of signal strength regardless of its true strength. Even with the special cell tower and a custom-built electronics lab backstage, the bugs persisted.

The iPhone’s biggest problem was that it often ran out of memory and had to be restarted if made to do more than a handful of tasks at a time. Jobs had a number of demo units onstage with him to manage this problem. If memory ran low on one, he would switch to another while the first was restarted.

In 100 or so rehearsals, Jobs didn’t make it through once without a glitch. Steve got through the demo and his Apple fans ignored the obvious fakery. The audience saw what they wanted to see, the promise of the new technology that, as Steve said, “…would change everything”.

Jobs, once burned, was prepared for the worst. His extra phones, special communications lines, careful scripting, and rehearsals were key ingredients in his plan to make sure that his audience would see exactly what he wanted them to get.

What they saw was just what Steve wanted them to get.

Preparation pays off. We could all learn from that.

Recommended Best Practices for Demonstrations:

  • Make it easy to try
  • Make sure it woks
  • Make it easy to evaluate
  • Make sure the viewer sees significant benefits
  • Make sure it is consistent with the viewer’s language and culture.

Failure to achieve ANY of these impairs the ability of the attendees to see and get the point of the demonstration. Have your own demos ever gone haywire despite your best efforts? Share your stories!