“There will be haters. There will be doubters. And then there will be you proving them wrong.”
This is how Robert Falcone thinks about product demos because he’s lived it firsthand. As a co-founder of his own startup, and now working closely with customers at marketing software maker Monetate, he’s given hundreds of product demos. For a while, many were not successful, but he’s used that experience to his advantage.
“I thought it was just as easy as telling people what the product was and what it did,” says Falcone. “But then I’d finish and people would either be confused or just politely say, ‘Thank you,’ and we’d never hear from them again.”
After getting this response time and time again, he was determined to crack the product demo code. If clarity meant conversions, how could he change his delivery to give people clarity the first time around? To find the answer, he continued to pitch and demo, A/B test, observe and repeat. The lessons he gleaned are collected in his new book Just F*cking Demo, which recently hit Amazon’s list of hot new releases.
In this exclusive interview, Falcone shares the structure of a winning product demo and the tactics he’s discovered to convince people that they need your product in just one conversation.
It’s easy to botch a demo
“It occurred to me that I was an absolute expert at the product I was pitching—I was presenting Monetate’s products day in and day out to some of the biggest brands in the country—but people still didn’t seem to really get it,” says Falcone. “It became abundantly clear that knowing your product doesn’t make a demo successful.”
The tough part is, the people you’re presenting to rarely give you the feedback you need to get better. Most of them simply thank you for your time or politely end the meeting. Very rarely do you hear about improvements you could make to the product, much less how you explained it to them.
“I’d ask people, ‘Do you understand what I’m saying?’ and they’d tell me, ‘Yeah,’ because they didn’t want to look dumb,” he says. “But you don’t want people to just say, ‘Sure, I get it.’ You want the sale.” After several quarters of struggle, he knew he had to diagnose what he was doing wrong and learn how to make his demos iron clad. Instead of asking for feedback, he started observing the room as he spoke. He paid attention to tone. He experimented and meticulously recorded his findings. He watched a lot of videos of other demos, and sought out advice that might apply.
Now, one of the easiest and biggest mistakes he sees is that companies don’t effectively craft their demo to fit their specific audience—i.e. they don’t distill their dozens of features and selling points into the few that will really resonate with this particular investor, prospect, or even prospective employee.
“Good demos don’t have to be perfect for the product. They have to be perfect for the audience.”
No matter who you’re meeting with, you need to take the time to really think: What do these people in particular need to know before they’ll make a deal? To make sure you’re answering this question, Falcone proposes a ‘You-They-You’ framework for a demo conversation. You need to show your prospects only the specific features that they need to achieve what they want, so that you can get the result you’re aiming for. The success of a demo depends on your prospects understanding the value you could add.
To make his presentations more persuasive and compelling, Falcone studied videos of great business speakers like Malcolm Gladwell and Simon Sinek, and even magicians. How do they get their audiences so bought in to what they’re doing or saying? The common theme he saw emerge is that they all had a deep understanding of what their audience cared about. “If you know what their primary concerns are, you can show them just enough of your product that aligns with their immediate problems and get a better result.”
Prep for maximum agility
“There were a lot of times when I felt like my greatest strength was actually holding me back,” says Falcone. “When you’re an expert on a product, you’re actually in real danger, because you’re much more likely to put your customer to sleep showing them every little thing—or they ask you a question you didn’t predict and it totally throws off your momentum.”
Instead of memorizing every nuance of your product, prep time is much better spent thinking up all the questions you want to ask your customers, and the questions you believe you’ll get from them. If you can come up with answers to all of these questions, you’ll go into your demo meeting with holistic, agile knowledge. You’ll be able to hop from one part of the product to another with ease, and adapt to the unexpected. Note that these questions need to be for your audience too—you want to build a list that will help you gather as much information about them upfront as possible.
“You don’t want a rock solid, set-in-stone plan. You want a playbook. You want to know all the plays but only run the ones you need in the moment.”
As Falcone puts it, about 10% of your demos will go great regardless. Either you’ve worked with the person before, or the room just groks what you say the first time. Another 10% will go bust no matter what you do. You’re presenting the wrong solution to the wrong crowd. It’s not worth dwelling on and deriving lessons from this batch because they would have gone south no matter what. But then there’s that 80% in the middle where you make most of your money and where you need to win.
In Falcone’s experience, prepping diligently is what makes the difference with this 80%. A well prepared demo is obvious. It can be interrupted multiple times. It can be fast-forwarded and rewinded without flustering the speaker. It only shows off what the audience needs to see to come to a decision. It’s fluid and flexible and—while it may have been obsessively rehearsed—it comes off as effortless.
Run a 5-minute discovery session
In order to make it clear how relevant your product is for your audience, you need to learn about them—and fast. You may have had the opportunity to get some background on their company and the people in the room. But you need more than this to be effective in a demo. Decades ago, it was a common business school recommendation for vendors to conduct thorough “discovery” before attempting a sell—one book even suggests spending a full day interviewing all the people you will be meeting with to really understand their needs. This isn’t possible anymore. Not by a long shot.
“Honestly, no prospect that startups meet with is going to give them more than an hour to make their case,” Falcone says. “So, you want to come up with the most important things you need to learn about your customer before launching into your demo—and you need to extract those things in five minutes or less.”
The best strategy for this: “Be upfront with the people you’re talking to. Say outright, ‘I’m going to start off today’s conversation by taking just five minutes to ask you a few questions so that I can understand which features will be most important for you.’ That way, you’re all on the same page. You’ve framed things in a strong, clear, logical way, and you already have them participating in a dialogue.”
Time-bounding this part of your presentation is critical. If you leave out the fact that you just need five minutes, you’ll probably get some push back. Your customer will tell you to just dive in, and you’ve lost your opportunity. By saying the words, “five minutes,” you make it sound easy and not worth interrupting.
In order to make the most of this window, your goal should be to first tease out the audience’s ‘before’ state. What are they doing today that they aren’t happy about? Where are their existing pain points? What slows people down? Then focus on their desired ‘after’ state. What are the goals that your product could help achieve for them, or the problems it could solve? What are the requirements they have for such a product? Who will use it? What will their company look like or be able to do with your help?
“If I can suss out those two things, that gives me a leading arrow for where I want to go during the demo,” says Falcone. “You can also ask questions during the presentation itself to get an even more refined sense of the information you got during your initial discovery. But the upfront questions make a huge difference.”
As important as this five minutes is, you also have to accept that you can’t capture all the valuable data you need in this short amount of time. “In your mind, you have to know that what they’ve told you is just the tip of the iceberg of how they really feel or what they expect,” he says. “That’s why you’ll want to keep revisiting the same topics whenever you can—to get more information. What you’ll find is that, as the audience sees that the demo is relevant to them, they’ll start to give you more and more info.”
Running a smart discovery session is what helped Falcone win a particularly competitive recent deal with a major eCommerce retailer. And during the product demo, he was able to discover some key details: “We really got to understand the challenges they were facing. The big one was that they had a hard time differentiating their customers, so they’d end up discounting their products for everyone at the end of every month to drive their numbers.” The company wanted to segment their customers so they could offer discounts where they mattered most, and Falcone could show how Monetate’s software makes this possible.
“Learning about their biggest concerns gave me the ability to say, ‘I think your biggest revenue opportunities are with these three tools that I’ll demo to you right now, so let’s dive deeper and you can see them in action.’ It allowed me to make myself a trusted advisor aligned with their goals, compared to our competitors who were simply trying to sell them something.”
“Unless you make yourself clear and relevant, customers will go with whatever company or competitor shows off the shiniest new object.”
At the same time, the discovery Falcone did allowed him to demo the functionality at exactly the right time when his prospect was ready for it. “Beyond that, it gave me a sense of how the company would and could grow into our product and eventually take advantage of more features without me clouding things up and confusing them by presenting everything at once. Once a customer is ready, you can layer in additional features and functionality.”
Fast forward to outcomes
“One thing Malcolm Gladwell does that’s great is that he’ll tell you how a story turns out and then he’ll back up and explain why it happened that way,” says Falcone. “He’s got this great talk that starts with David slaying Goliath, and then he goes into all the reasons why that was possible.”
It’s very effective to use this same structure for a product demo. You want your audience to envision, and if possible, experience what life with your service or product will be like. Then, once they have that in mind, you can back up and show them why things will be so much better. It’s part of anticipating that ‘after’ state you want to ask about during discovery, and addressing it right away.
“How did Michael Jordan start a sneaker revolution? If you take a look at those old commercials for Air Jordans, people weren’t buying the shoes because they were a well-built product, they were buying them so they could ‘Be like Mike,’ as the tagline went,” says Falcone. “They saw a vision of what they wanted to be, what they wanted to believe they could achieve. That’s what you want to do for people during a demo.”
“As quickly as possible, get to ‘here’s what you told me your goal is, here’s the challenge you told me is in the way, here’s what it will look like when our product takes down that challenge.’”
“A good reaction to that sentence is, ‘Okay yeah, that’s what I want to do, now prove to me your tool can do that.’ That’s when you get into the features that align with what they want.”
When Falcone demos Monetate, one of the most effective things he does is show prospects their existing site and a version of their site with the new content they want served in all of the places they identified. That’s what this software can make happen, he says, and it’s hard to argue when the solution is right there in front of them.
“You want to create an experience where you can very starkly show the contrast,” he says. “Show them what exists and what could be and keep doing it until they say, ‘Alright, yes I want it to be like that, now show me how to do it.’”
When you use this tactic, it’s very important that you strike the right tone for the meeting you’re in and the people you’re speaking to. Whether you’re wildly enthusiastic or more professionally factual depends on the situation. If you choose wrong, you could appear to be overselling a vision of the future, or you might not seem confident enough in your ability to execute. Falcone has some recommendations here.
“Always echo the tone and desire of your audience,” he says. “If I was demoing to an investor who told me they only back truly revolutionary B2B apps, I’d be very direct and serious about why my product is different than the rest of the market. If I was demoing to a sales prospect that was concerned about increasing revenue by pushing content faster without IT’s help, I’d try a much more imaginative tone of excitement thinking through all the creative things they could do.”
“Mirror the energy in the room, the words they use, how they talk about their product and your product. You’ll understand each other that much faster.”
“What matters most is showing the features that help your customers understand what they need to so you get the outcome you want. Communicate the way that they communicate, and you’re going to get that outcome more often than not.”
Go from macro to micro
Starting with a macro view of your product, however simple it might seem to you, can help frame everything else that you’re going to show. You have to remember that most people you demo to will probably know nothing about what you’re about to present or how it works. If you get into the weeds too fast because you’re worried about dumbing things down or not being subtle enough, you’ll lose.
“Describe how this high-level description of the product fits with what the customer is looking to do, and then assure them that you’ll get more nuanced in a bit,” says Falcone. “What you want is for your audience to say, ‘Okay, I buy into this first piece I’m hearing—it definitely aligns with the overall simplicity that we’re looking for, and now I want to understand how to customize it for our specific needs.”
When you do start getting more nuanced, you want to call attention to the fact that you’re zooming in on the areas they’ve expressed interest in during discovery. “Say, ‘Great, now I’m going to take you down into a little more detail. The reason why I’m going to show you this thing in particular is because you told me X, Y, Z.’”
During your 5-minute discovery, you can take the features people mentioned and sort them into different mental buckets. Then line up those buckets from macro to micro and dip into each one of them, provide more information, and summarize what you just showed them. You want to repeat how your product addresses each of these buckets at least twice to help people internalize your points.
“Let’s say you’re selling a device and one of its more obvious characteristics is that it’s small—you’d want to focus on that quality and talk about how your customers can fit the device in their pockets. That’s a macro piece of information. The size of the device is very easily understood, easily relatable,” says Falcone. “Then you might describe a more micro feature—like the ability to charge it without plugging it in. Then you might go even more micro. Depending on who you’re talking to, you might say it contains an X milliamp capacitor unlike anything else on the market, etc.”
Starting macro and going micro ensures that you’ll lead your audience down a logical path, gain their buy-in from the start, and stop before features become irrelevant to their needs or you lose their attention. If you bucket all of the information you’ve mentally prepped along this spectrum, you can very quickly tailor your demo in the moment.
Survive awkward silence
Silence is not the enemy. You need to make friends with it before you demo. Because co-founders and salespeople are often vivacious and passionate about their products, they have a tendency to talk for long stretches and fill every pause with more information. “If you’re not careful, you’ll inadvertently cut off your audience and lose opportunities to find out more about them,” says Falcone. “For this reason, I’ll often leave an awkward silence in the conversation intentionally.”
He’s found that this keeps him from going off topic just to fill the void, and if he waits for a bit before answering a question, he has more time to be thoughtful about his response. Best of all, someone else in the room may jump in to supply more context about what they want or need.
“Sometimes I’ll ask a question purposely like, ‘Wow, it sounds like this process is really a resource drain, would that be accurate?’ They’ll say, ‘Yes,’ and if I leave an awkward silence after that, they’ll say, ‘Yeah, the more I think about it, we just have to get away from doing it the way we have been… our developers are just so overworked…’ Because I allowed the silence to sit there, I now know more about the challenges they’re facing.”
“A great demo is really a conversation with your product as the backdrop.”
Ideally, you want lots of people talking and asking questions during your presentation, Falcone says. “You really don’t want it to turn into a lecture, so I recommend starting the Q&A yourself early on.”
There are a couple types of questions you can ask over the course of a good demo to keep people engaged and facilitate learning on both sides. The first type is the open-ended question. “These are meant to simply get your audience talking. Something like, ‘Where do you see opportunities to grow your business?’ or ‘What frustrates you the most about the current process?’”
Don’t underestimate the importance and intent of the questions you choose to ask. Even if you’re just trying to stir up chatter, you need to be thoughtful so you don’t kill the energy in the room. “You want to steer clear of questions that don’t sell an aspect of your product. Like if you ask, ‘So how does this look?’ you could very well get a ‘Yeah that looks great, thanks,’ and while they’re not arguing with you, you haven’t given them a reason to be excited or to pay attention. Any time you get a response like that, where people don’t seem engaged, you need to determine quickly if you’re overwhelming them with features or if you chose the wrong ones to highlight.”
The second type of question to ask is what Falcone calls a ‘point question’ used to maximize effect. “If I’ve done a really good discovery, and I feel like I’ve keyed in on something the audience identified as a challenge or a goal, I might ask a pointed question to magnify the impact our product could make. Something like: ‘All these inefficiencies must really be costing you a lot of money, correct?’ Usually there’s a bit of an awkward silence before they agree.”
Of course the most nerve-racking part of a product demo is fielding questions from your prospective customers. If you find yourself in a tight spot without an easy or articulate answer, your best tool is a ‘response question.’ “Basically, follow up their question with a question of your own,” Falcone says. “Consider their motive first. Why are they asking the question? Maybe they truly don’t understand something. Maybe they think a competitor does better. Maybe they doubt your ability to deliver. You can ask to find out what you’re dealing with.”
Response questions can be very powerful for getting you out of sticky situations. Falcone remembers one customer asking whether the product he was demoing allowed users to push content wherever they chose. He immediately responded, “Yes, absolutely, let me show you how…” (which worked most of the time), but they came back with a comment: “You know what, that doesn’t work for us because if everyone had that ability it would be a disaster.”
Today, in that same situation, Falcone would reach for a response question: “I could have asked, ‘Are there specific types of content you want pushed? Who are the people on your team who do that today? Would you want everyone to have that level of permission?’ When you ask a series of nested questions like that, people generally pick up on the ones that are most important to them—giving you even more data. If they told me that they only wanted technical users pushing content, I could have told them how Monetate would make that possible.”
- Get to know your audience as well as you possibly can, down to their individual profiles. Do the legwork this requires beforehand, and take five minutes at the very beginning to understand their goals, challenges and needs in real time.
- Anticipate, prepare and rehearse until you can shuffle around your entire presentation and remain informative, unflustered and articulate.
- Kick off your demo with the outcome that everyone in the room wants. Make it clear how much better their lives and jobs could be if they used your product. Then pull back and explain why.
- Start macro so that you don’t go over anyone’s head and you frame your argument as simply as possible. Then go micro into the areas that align with your audience’s specific interests.
- Don’t dodge silences. Use them to gather more information, carefully think through what you want to say next, and ensure you’re not cutting anyone off.
- Control questions and answers throughout the demo so that you’re keeping people engaged, constantly reinforcing your selling points, and fully understanding what they want from your product.
This post originally appeared at First Round Review.