THE BLOG

The Power of the Demo

03/15/2013 12:17 pm ET | Updated May 15, 2013
  • Michael Dezube Graduate engineering student, Cornell; Software Engineer

We all have experienced that WOW moment when technology has truly impressed us. Perhaps it was the first iPhone release, or the first time we saw a car's built-in GPS actually work, or maybe it was even just the first time we realized a microwave could "automagically" determine how long to cook our popcorn. But the real question is: why were we so impressed? Was it truly due to the technological feat alone?

New iPhones and iPads never cease to amaze despite some versions having only minor modifications from the previous ones. How does Apple manage to accomplish this? The answer is that Apple succeeds in evoking a personal response in its followers by having truly striking demonstrations (demos) that entice. In fact, many commercials are also implementing this approach. One great example is Google's Superbowl commercial from 2012. Not only does this commercial demo the technical feats of Google's instant search, but more notably it incorporates a human-interest story, taking the viewer on an emotional journey that they too would like to experience.

The next natural question is how can one apply such an approach to one's own demos. The first step is to know the audience to whom you are giving the demo; as my faculty advisor at Cornell, Dr. David Schneider often says, "Presentations are not about what you want to say, they're about what your audience needs to hear." This is a crucial point that is often overlooked, demos are not done for the presenters to test their own work, rather they are prepared in order to convey a message to the audience. When I worked at Cisco Systems I used to specifically design 2 to 3 different PowerPoints depending on who the target audience would be. Managers frequently commented that they were appreciative of me sparing them the tedious technical details and only delving into what they truly needed to hear. On the other hand, my technical colleagues appreciated an alternate presentation, which included a deeper analysis of the algorithms at play.

And so in the spirit of sparing you the technical details, I'd like to tell you a story. I am the computer science student lead for the host team of the Cornell Cup USA presented by Intel. This national competition has teams from schools including UPenn, MIT, Berkeley, Columbia, and many others. Each team has to apply Systems Engineering principles to create their own Intel Atom based embedded systems to solve real world challenges. As the host team we don't compete. However in the past, we have given quite a few technological demos, especially of our modular robotic platform endearingly nicknamed the ModBot.

When we demo the ModBot we are always careful to construct a demo which highlights the features that would interest the audience the most. In particular, the ModBot has Mecanum wheels that allow one to drive the robot in any direction with any orientation; additionally the ModBot can also be operated either autonomously or manually using Xbox controllers. Although alone this is quite exciting, developing a properly orchestrated demo can captivate the audience even more. In fact, doing exactly that allowed us to emphasize some of the interesting modular aspects of the robot which were not necessarily quite as alluring at first glance, but which we nonetheless wanted the audience to understand and appreciate.

For instance, last year we opened the Cornell Cup competition at Walt Disney World and for our demo, we modified our ModBot robotic system to look like a humanoid that could play 'Crazy Train' on Rock Band (the video game) as we took the stage! The audience was enthralled. Ultimately they asked many follow up questions as to what else the robot could do, and how the internals worked, but it was the initial unique and high-octane delivery of the demo that got the audience effervescent and engaged.

Another way to heighten the demo experience is to involve the audience in it. Don Woodluck, a Senior Vice President at GE, once toured our lab for a demo. As a Senior Vice President, Don has certainly seen extraordinary technology, therefore creating a compelling demo was quite a tall order. However, by allowing him to experience our technology on a personal level, he was able to truly relate with it as we do. Placing the Xbox controller in Don's hands helped him connect and recognize the versatility of our system. But what truly left an impact upon Don, and what allowed him to experience a veritable feeling of excitement unlike that felt during any other demo we could have created, was when Don drove the robot himself, making it fly across the room responding to his every flick of the controller.

Of course we were proud to demonstrate the embedded systems we had built, and the great feats our ModBot could undertake, but what truly captivated Don's attention was the experience we offered.

To be sure, it is necessary to demonstrate the actual technological accomplishments at hand. However, it is important not to get lost in the technical nitty-gritty of the project. No matter how optimized a piece of code is, and no matter how efficiently memory is managed, it can never truly create the same impact as an exciting and stimulating demo can. Remember, if the audience is truly interested in the details, they will ask for them.

So never discount the importance of a great demo. Great demos can establish stakeholder buy-in, secure more resources, and ensure the longevity and success of a project; therefore it is critical to deliver a great and impactful one. Involve those you are presenting to, surprise them, excite them. However you do it, make your demo unique, make it lasting, and make it powerful.