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I’m writing this week about presentations and demos.

I wrote Monday about Joel Spolsky demoing his product “in passing,” without overtly appearing to demo it. It was a terrific idea, brilliantly carried off.

However, few of us demo products whose use can be woven into the presentation itself. (Think of demoing PowerPoint itself for the ultimate you-can-demo-it-without-appearing-to-demo-it product.)

I designed one of the early Microsoft demos for Internet Explorer. Version 3.0 was the first version that was really a usable browser. The demo didn’t sell Internet Explorer per se; rather, it told a story about how we’d be using the web in the future to shop. Internet Explorer was simply there as demoers walked potential customers through buying a shirt — a welcome-back video, personalized pages, a rotating image so you could see the shirt from all sides, a checkout cart that remembered your information, etc.

These are all things we take for granted today, but nobody was doing them in 1995 because the technology wasn’t ready. People expected we’d get to something such as we showed, but they were amazed to see it working. As a byproduct, they took away two important messages that we delivered subliminally (and then probably pounded into them in what we said afterward): Internet Explorer was now Netscape’s equal, and you should look to Microsoft technology if you wanted to ride the next wave on the web.

I loved giving the demo (and teaching others how to give it), because I wasn’t demoing technology; rather, I was walking through a scenario that had everyone fascinated — it was 1995, after all.

I hated traveling somewhere to give the demo, because it required carrying two 15-pound portable computers, a network mini-hub, and other gear, in addition to schlepping my luggage (I hadn’t heard of wheels on luggage yet) and wearing my suit jacket so it wouldn’t get wrinkled. But in the end it was worthwhile.

So while it’s rare that you’re demonstrating something where the setting itself can provide context for your product or offering, take advantage of it when and if you can.

More importantly, consider the lesson here — people care about scenarios, not products. And more than just scenarios, people care about scenarios that match what they do in their life — work life, home life, commute life, whatever. Don’t demonstrate features. Don’t demo your product. Solve a problem. The trick is to pose the problem with as little setup as you can get away with.

Demoing an app for tracking software bugs? What setup could be better than a bug that shows itself to your audience.

Demoing a browser? I showed the “Internet lifestyle” in living color and real-live-before-your-eyes bits, and let the audience make their own connections between an experience they wanted and the technology I was showing.

You’ve all seen the cartoons about the door-to-door carpet cleaner salesman who dumps mud on your carpet. You don’t have to go that far… but if you want to sell me a vacuum cleaner, show me how it cleans up a mess with no fuss and no work. (I hate vacuuming, and I have to vacuum the house when I get done writing this article.)


Friday I’ll talk about one other aspect of presentations that came up in Joel Spolsky’s demo.

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