My Biggest Demo Fail

Demo’s fail. If you don’t bribe the demo gods well enough things will come crashing down on you. How you handle and recovery from your demo fail shows just how good of a presenter you are.

My biggest demo fail was a few years ago now. Let me set the stage for you. It’s TechEd North America in Atlanta, GA. It’s my first time presenting at TechEd, ever. I get to my room 20 minutes before my session, get up on stage (TechEd has 30 minute breaks or longer between sessions) and fire up my laptop. You see I’ve got 5 VMs that I need to be able to run to make my demo happen. So I fire everything up, get logged into all the VMs, and I’ve got plenty of time left.

I plug in the audio feed to the sound system and fire up some music and tell the room monitors to start letting people in. People start to file in. The room holds probably 400 people and ends up about 1/2 full. A couple of friends have come to sit in the front row so we’re chatting (with the mic turned off). About two minutes to go before my session there’s a loud thud and the screens go dark, and I can see that the room is no longer bathed in the colorful glow of the projectors. The entire room now has a blue tint to it, while my music is still playing.

I head back over to my laptop and see that yep, it’s blue screened. The audience starts to give the congrats your machine blew up applause.

I quickly reboot my machine and get the slide deck back up on the screen while booting up my VMs while giving the talk.

Everyone in the room knew exactly how badly screwed I was, but by the time I got to the demo portion of the session the VMs were up and logged in, and the demos worked exactly as expected. Thankfully the laptop didn’t blue screen again during the entire time.

The lesson here is that these things happen. All you can do it recover, roll with it, and pray that you can get through it gracefully. It doesn’t matter how much you prepare, things happen. Apparently I did OK, as I presented at the next 3 TechEd North America and the next three TechEd Europe events.


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Never Tempt the Demo Gods

Demos are one of the most fun parts of presenting, and one of the riskiest. This is because the demo gods have two options. They can smile upon you and give you a perfect demo, or they can piss all over you and your demo can crash and burn. How you handle those demo failures shows how good of a speaker you really are.

If you are able to recovery from the failure and fix the problem without anyone noticing the problem, you are a master speaker. If you point out the failure, then work around it, you’re pretty good (this is where I usually fall in the demo failure recovery event). If you stumble from the failure and get stuck and can’t continue, you need to practice your demos more (or not use demos if you can get away from it).

There’s a few ways to avoid demo failure. The easiest is to avoid demos. If possible stick to screenshots, they can’t fail you and you don’t have to drop out of the PowerPoint to get to them. Many demos out there don’t really need to be demos. If all you are doing is showing code, and the output I can do that with screenshots. Or at the very least have screenshots handy in a hidden slide so that if the demo fails you can toss them up on the screen to show how it’s supposed to work.

Another way to avoid demo failure, is to not type in the demo. People laugh when I (and others) say to never type in a demo, but we aren’t kidding. When you are on stage presenting you are nervous and odds are you’ll hit a key wrong and get a lovely error on the screen when you shouldn’t. Have all the code you’ll be using pre-written (and tested) so you can just open it and show it, then run it. The same goes for T-SQL scripts, PowerShell scripts, etc. Just open the script, show it, and run it. (And when showing PowerShell scripts don’t use the PowerShell prompt, use the damn ISE so the audience can read the screen.)

My final suggestion is to use something like DemoMate to record the demos ahead of time. This way if there’s a demo failure you can show the recorded version of it working. Now don’t plan on just using DemoMate and never showing an actual demo because that won’t fly with your audience. But if the demo blows up you need a way to get your point across.


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