Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 3, Issue 37;   September 10, 2003: Shooting Ourselves in the Feet

Shooting Ourselves in the Feet

by

Last updated: November 23, 2019

When you give a demo to a small audience, there's a danger of overwhelming them in a behavior I call "swarming." Here are some tips for terrific demos to small audiences.

As the visitors filed out of the room, Glenn caught Cynthia's eye. Yep, she was just as disturbed as he was. "Buy you a cup a coffee?" he asked. She nodded, without energy, and looked down. Everyone else started to leave, so Glenn and Cynthia walked wordlessly together to San Jose, the coffee bar on Three West.

A cup of coffeeThey poured two talls and sat down in a booth out of the way around the corner. She opened with "Well, that was a disaster. Why don't we cut out the middleman and just shoot each other in the feet?"

Glenn smiled. It would be funny, if it weren't true. They had just given a demo to top management of what everyone hoped would become their biggest customer, and things hadn't gone well. "What could we have done differently?" Glenn asked.

So over those two cups of coffee, and two more, they made up a list of tips for giving small demos, to avoid a disaster next time.

You could make a tip list, too. Here are some to get you started.

Small demos should be
personal, conversational,
and flexible
Avoid swarming
If the size of your team is about the same as the size of the audience, they can feel overwhelmed, and they're unable to take in your carefully crafted message. In effect, you undermine your own effort. Find a way to limit the number of people in your organization who can attend, without offending anyone or making people feel excluded.
Don't surround the audience
Everyone on your team should sit or stand in a single arc that covers no more than a third of the circle around the audience. Surrounding creates a sense of danger — subliminal, but real.
Have at most two designated speakers
Let the conversation happen between the audience and the presenter. Occasionally, one other member of the presenter team might have something to add, or might answer a question. But if more than two people from the presenter team speak — not simultaneously of course — the message tends to cloud and you confuse the audience.
Designate one speaker as primary
When there are two speakers, contention and confusion is possible. To limit this, define roles. Let one person wear the "business" or "program" hat (B), and the other the "technical" hat (T). B should be primary, and T should defer to B.
Let each other speak
B should never interrupt T, and T should never interrupt B. Work out a gesture signal to indicate "stop talking" but don't interrupt each other.
Support each other
No matter what your partner says, let it stand. Chances are the audience will never remember it anyway. If you must comment, find a way to make your comment a supportive addition rather than a correction.

Publish your tip list on your intranet. And if you send me a copy, you'll help protect my feet, too. Go to top Top  Next issue: Coincidences Do Happen  Next Issue

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These tips are excerpted from Terrific! Technical Presentations, my new ebook, which is filled with tips for people who give technical presentations large and small.

Reader Comments

John Brtis
Reminds me of an old joke…
An old cow farmer goes to Sunday service and when it's time to start the preacher enters and sees that the cow farmer is the only person present. Rather flustered about what to do with only one other person in the church the preacher asks the farmer, "How do you think we should handle this?" The farmer drawls back, "Well…all I know is cows, but I know that if I go out to bring hay to the herd and I only find one cow, I still feed that cow." With a now clear understanding of what he needed to do, the preacher launched into a full service, including half a dozen songs, and a particularly well crafted thirty-minute sermon. At the end of this extravaganza, the preacher was saying his goodbyes to the farmer and asked him how he liked it. "Well," said the farmer, "all I know is cows, but if I go out to feed the herd and find only one cow, I don't dump the entire truck load of hay on her."

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