Peter Cohan, founder of Belmont, Calif.-based The Second Derivative, has helped hundreds of software companies large and small improve their demos since 2003.
His book, "Great Demo!" offers 300 pages of positive advice, but when we spoke with him, we asked Cohan to concentrate on the negative: Tell us how software companies blow it when they show off their products.
So, read 'em and weep: If any of these dozen disasters sounds like something you're doing, it's time to change your ways.
Blunder #1: You conduct Harbor Tours.
"For almost all software companies, whether large or small or in-between, there's a strong tendency to dive into a demo without discovery," Cohan says. "They ignore asking about customer needs and lead with the product.
"This is what's known as the 'Harbor Tour': You're put on a boat and driven around the harbor for three hours, and the customer is asked, 'So, have you seen anything you like so far?'"
The Fix: "You need to invest time to understand the customer's situation," says Cohan. "What challenges are they seeking to address, what's getting in the way, what specific capabilities is the customer looking for to solve his or her problem?
"That’s probably the single most important take away: You’ve got to diagnose before you can offer a prescription."
Blunder #2: Your demos run in a straight line from beginning to end.
"Most people do a traditional linear demo," Cohan says. "It starts at a beginning and goes to some end point. Have you ever watched someone else's demo, and you find yourself thinking, 'Where is this going?'
"The issue is they’re following a linear pathway to get you to the big 'Wow!' or payoff screen at the end. People leave the room before you get there, particularly the high-level execs."
The Fix: "Do the last thing first," Cohan says. "Turn your demo upside down. Present the payoff screen right upfront, right away, so the customer can see where this is going.
"If it resonates, the customer is intrigued, and they may literally say, 'That's exactly what I'm looking for; how did you generate that?'
"Then the balance of the demo becomes a process of peeling back the layers and doing it in accord with the customer's depth and level of interest."
Blunder #3: You offer a thorough corporate overview.
"I call this one 'Death By Corporate Overview,'" says Cohan.
"Given that execs are typically willing to invest only five to 10 minutes to determine if this vendor -- meaning you -- is worthwhile, an awful tactic is to waste that time with a traditional corporate overview presentation: your mission statement, your revenues, your offices, that slide with a smorgasbord of company logos."
The Fix: "The demo is too early for that stuff." Cohan says. "That comes later, once the customer is comfortable that they're seeing a solution. Then they may ask, for example, 'Do you offer support where we have offices?'
"But at the beginning of the meeting they just want to know, 'What are you going to do to help me solve my business problems?'
"If you're asked about your company, offer what I call the three-fact corporate overview presentation: We've been in business _blank_ years, we have _blank_ customers located around the world, and one crisp sentence describing what you do -- but it has to be crisp.
"At this point all you want to do is show that you are a substantial business; you don't need to give the details of your life history. And, in fact, too much detail can get you in trouble.
"This happened to me some years ago: We were doing our overview, we had our beloved slide of customer logos, and I noticed someone pointing at the slide, whispering to his neighbor. I was curious, so I stopped to ask him if he had a question.
"He pointed at this company's logo on our slide and said, 'We think they're idiots, and we'd never do anything that they do.' Actually, that company he was talking about is now getting out of the photography business -- you probably know who they are."
Blunder #4: You show them everything (or try to).
"Too many software demos try to show as much as possible," Cohan says. "The classic example: The software vendor thinks they have 60 minutes for the demo and, at the actual meeting, they're told they only have 30 minutes.
"What do they do? They try to pack the same demo into the same amount of geography, into the 30-minute slot. They talk faster. The result is even more confusion and dismay on your customers' faces."
The Fix: "Apply a principle from journalism," says Cohan. "It's called the inverted pyramid writing style.
"Put the most important stuff up front, and then move toward more and more granular material as you go deeper into the content. That way, if you run out of time, you've still covered the most important points."