Your demo needs a prestige
The key element in every great product demo.
Every great magic trick has three parts that build upon each other to maximize the audience’s excitement when the magician reveals the final part of the illusion. The last of the stages is called “the prestige,” a term of imprecise origin that became popularized contemporarily by Christopher Priest’s book “The Prestige” and the eponymous film released in 2006 featuring Hugh Jackman. The Hollywood re-enactment of a Victorian-era feud among magicians would have us believe that magicians spend their time dreaming up better ways to build to the climax of each illusion to create the maximum impact on the audience. Ricky Jay, the renowned magician known for his sleight of hands skills once said “You’ve got to take the observer from the ordinary, to the extraordinary, to the astounding.” If you want to have an excellent product demonstration, you need to do the exact same thing and build to your prestige.
However, a powerful prestige in a product demo is the culmination of dozens of thoughtful decisions that start long before the customer is in the room.
Great demos tell stories. No matter how fantastic the features, demos filled with only features fall flat. There is no final climax in a procedural run-through of features. The product team must weave a compelling storyline into the demo so it resonates with the audience and makes the product relatable and desirable. Instead of “we have a crawler that extracts your personal data from Facebook,” try “When Suzie’s brother was tragically killed in an accident last year, Suzie needed a way to build up a permanent digital memory of her brother’s life.” With a powerful story, we instantly empathize with the emotions and aspirations of the subject. A great one not only reinforces our memory of the demo, but it also commands our attention because we want to know how it resolves. The story does not, however, have to tug on our heart strings. Umbra, a remote sensing satellite company, tells an industry-specific story that wouldn’t resonate outside of its target market and this is fine—it is the tale of surprise, sales rep-driven pricing for purchasing satellite imagery. As a result of that reality, the screenshot below from their pricing page presents both the problem and the solution all at once, creating at least a partial prestige moment.
About a real(-ish) person
The story we tell can’t be too hyped-up or divorced from the customer’s reality. To the contrary, we need a narrative where the customer can envision themselves inside of it. Bad demos don’t reference people at all. Okay demos have made-up ones. The great ones tell a very real tale about a real person, or at least a plausibly real person experiencing an issue that occurs frequently enough for your target audience that it’s clear that your product is speaking to their needs. Instead of “suppose you need to measure the accuracy of different types of satellite location measurements,” try “In our demo we’ll follow the story of John, a Captain in the US Space Force who just learned that he needs to track the whereabouts of a new, clandestine Russian satellite, but he’s received conflicting reports about how close it is flying to an important US GPS satellite.”
Experiencing a challenge that is relatable
That real person must experience a real problem that the audience can relate to! A lot of new AI technology fails this test. “Wouldn’t it be nice if you could create an AI representation of your own voice,” is a nice start, but we need to also know “As someone writing a popular newsletter without the time to produce a podcast, wouldn’t it be nice to make episodes based on your newsletter with no additional work?” That’s how we tie the two together, by building a bridge between the person and the contextual need. Bonus points if you have a product where it’s easy to make the story your actual customer’s story in time for the demo. A fun AI marketing startup I know that helps write website copy used to start its demos with a re-write of the prospect’s website. This is fantastic because it immediately anchors the value to a situation the customer is deeply knowledgeable about. And if you’re thinking, well, that audience wouldn’t think it’s cool enough, then that’s a giant signal that it’s time to return to the drawing board and improve the product until it is compelling in the situations that matter.
Shows something seemingly impossible
Put simply, the product must actually do something incredible on behalf of a real person experiencing a real situation. This is a really high bar, and frankly most new products don’t meet this threshold. They do “something,” it’s just not something that matters or it’s not remarkable. The challenge is to find the one or two elements where the product can shine in this regard. Focusing on the previously impossible is a great way to anchor this aspect to showcase your prestige. Motion, the AI executive assistant for managing calendars, meetings, and projects, has a fantastic prestige moment showcasing this. The product deals with the challenge we all experience when we have a todo list that doesn’t match our calendar. In Motion, users can create todo tasks and the software schedules the tasks on our live calendar based on the precedence we set, and then it automatically reschedules meetings and other tasks that no longer fit, helping us achieve what we really intend instead of being slaves to our existing calendars. Before Motion, this seemed like an impossibly time consuming task without the support of an administrative assistant. This animation from their website shows the prestige in an instant.
That seems really hard to do
One crucial aspect of your product demonstration is highlighting the difficulty of the problem your audience faces and how your technology makes it possible to do something they wouldn’t even bother tackling. BoldVoice helps non-native English speakers drop their accents with personalized voice training. The reality is, most people just assume that they will always have an accent in a non-native language, but BoldVoice shows the user not only a solution but a path to doing something that seems like it wouldn’t be possible to tackle. The prestige is speaking a sentence with your own voice and then immediately getting detailed feedback that allows you to correct your accent on the very next pass and get graded with no judgement and no one watching. By contrast, demonstrations that don’t showcase the solution to a hard problem aren’t compelling, even if they connect to a real person in a real situation.
Magically becomes feasible in an instant
In the realm of product demonstrations, it is essential to create a sense of magic and wonder by showcasing how your solution makes the seemingly impossible problem suddenly feasible. The outcome should manifest instantaneously and dramatically at the finale, just like the prestige in a magic trick. We want the customer to have a breadcrumb to ground them in reality and to know that we didn’t fake our solution, but there should be sufficient mystery around how the product works and a quick enough transition into the final stage so that the customer can picture themselves getting the same outcome in seconds. If the build-up to the final demo moment takes too long or seems complex to arrive at, then the customer will assume they will also have a difficult experience, which will undermine any prestige. Laying seeds along the way and showing small prestige moments on the journey is a great path for a more complex offering, but make sure the story you choose has a final moment that puts all of the pieces together. At Palantir, our first demo centered around a terrorist suspect who was alluding authorities, and in the prestige, the system would magically find the connections between that suspect and known person’s of interest, the last piece of the puzzle needed to disrupt the next terrorist attack. It took just a few seconds and brought together all aspects of the story in one powerful moment. In the companies’ current demo videos, the narrator sets the stage of conflict in the South China Sea, and shows the below image which depicts a user’s ability to bring a satellite operating in the vicinity immediately to bear on answering a critical question. These are prestige moments, and when they hit right, your clients will stop asking you questions about what the product can do and start asking you buying questions.
Putting it all together
Capturing all aspects of this pattern is important, but it’s not necessary to envision them as ordered, distinct, or slow to build to. For most products, it will take 5-10 minutes to tell a real story and build the suspense for the final moment. However, ChatGPT is a great example of what a highly compact version looks like. For ChatGPT, the entire introduction, build, and prestige all live in about 20 seconds of demonstration. When a user types in an otherwise impossible to answer question that a real human would care about and asks it, without a human respondent in the loop, and then gets a human-quality result, that is adhering to this model. The same is true for a 20-minute Rippling demo when in the end it becomes apparent to the customer that, with the product, they can skip nearly every aspect of new employee onboarding. A sexy prestige is completely different depending on the industry and what is considered cutting edge in the audience. For tax professionals, for example, who are dramatically underserved with software solutions that ease their burdens, they don’t need to see 20K lines of code written live in front of their eyes. For them, a thoughtful capability for managing the influx of client documents and in-progress calculations delivers that moment. What matters is what the customer-base has become accustomed too. The prestige is about taking that reality and creating the maximum possible distance between that world and the new world that is empowered by your product.
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