Nathan Gold

Presentation Coach, Trainer, and Speaker

Words of demo wisdom from Jeff Hawkins

Jeff Hawkins is the Founder of Palm, HandSpring, and Redwood Neuroscience Institute. He is also the winner of 3 DEMOgod Awards from IDG Executive Forums and DEMO Conferences.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Jeff for some of his insights to what makes his demos so riveting. Here is the transcript of that interview where he talks about his most memorable product demos.

Nathan: What was your most memorable product demo?

Jeff: There’s no doubt about it. The most memorable was when we launched the PalmPilot. That was the first DEMOgod award I received. It was Ed Colligan and myself on stage. Ed was going to do the desktop part and I was doing the main presentation and demo. I just told the audience about the PalmPilot. And, with the PalmPilot in my hand, I put it down on the Elmo projector for the audience to see. I said that now that I have described how great this is; let me show you how it works.

It came up on the main screen so that everyone could see it and just as I started the demo, the screen went blank on the Elmo, not the PalmPilot. And so, it was like, the audience could not see anything. So, of course, the clock is ticking away. I had to improvise. And, I had no idea why the Elmo stopped working. I said it would be great if we could get some technical assistance. But, you know, I can’t just sit there waiting.

Nathan: So, what did you do?

Jeff: I decided to take action. I went towards the audience. I moved right up to the edge of the stage. You always want to engage the audience, right? I said to the audience, “Look…I am going to tell you and describe to you what you would see if this was working.”

I started going through my demo describing the screens. I actually showed the device and told the audience what would happen when you pushed this button. I just described the whole thing to them with passion and excitement. The demo was actually working pretty well this way even though the audience could not see anything.

Then, of course, the AV people finally got the Elmo working again. So, now I could pick up the demo using the Elmo for all to see. It was clear that the audience wanted to know more about this product based on what they had seen without the help of the Elmo. I had gotten their attention and they were really intrigued. And now, it was like a big tease. I told them about it. I held it up in my hand. I showed them how it fit in my shirt pocket.

Somehow, the audience chimed in and demanded that the clock be reset since the technical difficulties were not mine. So, they reset the clock for me. And, now I got to do the whole demo all over again, but this time live with the Elmo.

And, I think what really impressed people afterwards was that I did not lose my cool or composure. I mean, this is your one shot. They have just introduced the very thing that we had been working on for two years. People came up to me later on and said that I was just great because not only did they like the product, but I just kept going with all of the enthusiasm and excitement as if the demo was working. I used words like imagine this…You are going to see this and you are going to see that…and then we got to do it all over again.

This was a big deal. Everyone from Palm just died in his or her seats when the screen went blank. They worried that I was on the stage and now what are we going to do without the projection system working. But, I came through with flying colors.

Nathan: Did you ever find out what happened to the Elmo?

Jeff: When I went to put the Palm on the Elmo, unknowingly, I leaned up against the power switch and accidentally turned the Elmo off myself. I think they have redesigned the Elmo with the power switch on the back now.

Nathan: So Jeff, what do you consider the most important aspect to a product demo?

Jeff: There are different kinds of demos. There’s the big stage production like at a conference like DEMO and then there is the personal demo given to smaller audiences. I am not sure that there is a single most important answer, but I will tell you what works for me.

First of all, you’ve gotta connect with your audience. You’ve gotta be talking to them and with them, looking at them. You have to be reacting to what they say. You have to be reacting to their body language.

The worst demo is when you go through your spiel and you ignore the signs that your audience is giving you. You know, I hate it when someone is giving me a demo and they start telling me about how big the market is going to be. Don’t tell me this. I don’t need to hear this. Then, they continually refuse to read and react to my facial expressions and body language.

So, the number one thing for me is to connect with the person or the audience. Really. Pay attention to them. Watch them. Make that connection.

I often find that you need to have enthusiasm too. You have to believe in your product. You need to show how this product is important. I am so excited to tell you about this. You need to know this and let me see how I can make it relevant to you. Boy I am excited about this product.

Nathan: Do you rehearse and practice your demos?

Jeff: In my case, I always practice my demos over and over again. But, then when I give them, I am always extemporaneous in my approach. This is a key for me whether I am on stage or giving any kind of talk. I practice and practice. I really practice hard. I stand in front of a mirror. I will practice the demo and talk multiple times over. I will time myself to be sure I know how much time the demo will take.

Nathan: Do you typically use a demo script?

Jeff: Honestly, I don’t use a script. I never work from a written script. So, when I get up on stage or in front of the audience, I have these sayings and phrases in my head and practiced, ready to go. But, when I get up there, I kind of do it extemporaneously. I don’t always do the exact same thing each time. I react to the audience and I will pick from my reservoir of things to say and show. And, what I find is that I don’t usually use all of the material that I have practiced. I almost always add something new.

Nathan: Do you have any other anecdotes or stories for me?

Jeff: Here’s another example of a demo that went super even with some unplanned events. We were introducing the Treo at DEMO. There were two of us on stage, each with one Treo. It was a really big audience. My partner was sitting down and I was standing at the podium near the Elmo projector. During the demo, I showed how the Treo could be used as a cell phone to call my partner. People could actually see the number I was dialing and they could also see the other Treo where the phone call came in.

So, I was on the phone with my partner demonstrating the product. Now, during the placing of the phone call, my number flashed up on my partner’s screen as in caller-id. It showed my number and that Jeff Hawkins is calling from this number. Everything is going according to plan.

Anyway, during the demo someone in the audience called my number. Now, I am talking to my partner in front of this big audience and my Treo rings with an incoming phone call. I could hear the call waiting tone as the call came in. This was totally unexpected. I wondered what was going on and the audience could hear this too.

This was totally unpracticed. For the first few seconds, I didn’t realize what was going on. Why is this thing beeping at me. No one knows this phone number except my partner. So, I just stopped for a moment and I finally realized what was going on. It all came clear to me in a few brief seconds.

Someone is calling me in the middle of this demo. Someone from the DEMO audience saw my number on the screen and decided to call me in the middle of the demo. So, while this was happening, I broke from the practiced demo and I said to the audience, “Look what’s going on here. One of you out there in the audience is calling me right now. You saw my number, didn’t you?”

The entire audience starts chuckling and laughing. So I told the audience that I could take the time to answer this call right now and I could talk to you, whoever you are, but I am not going to do that because I am not sure what the person will say. More laughter.

But, this was a great twist of fate to the demo because I am here on the big stage doing this wonderful demo and I can ignore this incoming call because I know that I don’t want to speak to you right now. More laughter.

Another person might have just totally blown the demo. Uh oh. We have a bug or something that should not be happening right now. Uh oh. We did not plan on this.

So, instead of saying any of that stuff, you never want to say that in a demo. You never want to say that this is failing or crashing. You just plow through it and try to think of a creative way to deal with every situation that is thrown at you.

Nathan: Thanks Jeff. Do you have any final words of wisdom?

Jeff: This is a good topic. I think it’s a neat little niche that you have here Nathan. There are a lot of lessons that people can learn for giving great demos which is very different from the normal presentation skills type training that people take.