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How to do an Oscar-worthy hardware demo

Treat a hardware demo like you're going on stage. Prepare your script, rehearse like crazy and make sure your material is rock solid.

Showing off hardware to staffers, suits and possibly investors can be a nerve-wracking experience. Demand for systems and operations people remains strong, but fortune certainly smiles on experts who can explain the tech in a meaningful way in front of an audience.

In today's changing business world, tech people need to be able to speak and demonstrate. Your audience is spending valuable time to listen to your pitch, so it better be a good one. Think of a hardware demo as a stage show. Your job on stage is to know your material, understand your audience's needs, engage with them and be thoroughly prepared. The hardware's job is to work reliably and be impressive.

Follow these hardware demo tips to make your show go off without a hitch and ensure a great performance while you are in the spotlight.

Make the hardware rock solid

The first thing to do is make your hardware, whether it's a laptop, server, some cool new Internet of Things device or other gadget rock solid. Your talk will fail if the hardware is not reliable, properly configured, or if you don't know how it will behave.

Torture test the device or hardware for a few days to make sure it boots correctly, comes up in a stable state and doesn't crash under the pressure of the presentation. Take it apart and put it back together a few times to familiarize yourself with the connectors, sockets and switches.

The first time you rehearse your talk with the hardware, you'll definitely uncover some killer glitches. Take notes and fix the reliability issues. For example, I was showing off a micro-controller device and in the heat of the presentation I put the battery in backward. The LED on top didn't flash as it should have, so to prevent the problem the next time, I added a simple power switch and kept all the batteries secure in the battery holder. If your hardware is reliable, you'll quickly see where the bottlenecks are during execution. Maybe a data file takes too long to load, causing you to stand around waiting. Solution: Use a smaller data file or optimize the hardware to make it load faster.

Prepare a simple presentation

Rehearsal is where it all comes together.

Simplify your presentation, and don't get too tricky with your hardware.

You'll be hard pressed in a 40-minute talk, for instance, to go very deep with features and explanations. If you allow five minutes for your intro, three minutes for the wrap-up summary and 10 minutes of Q&A, that leaves 22 minutes to present the details of the hardware. Mix in a few slides and you begin to see how timing absolutely has to be managed.

Try limiting your talk to three main topics that you present for about seven minutes each. Make sure to mix in some razzle-dazzle time showing off the hardware, a call-to-action closing statement and a Q&A session. That gives you a chance to interact with audience members, so you better be an expert on your topics and offer valuable feedback to the questions. Effectively interacting with the audience, especially if it's a director, vice president or company founder can only help your career prospects.

It's also a good idea to prepare a few visual slides, but keep them simple. The hardware is the star, and you want to show it off. If you are showing off hardware with a strong animation, artistic or complex mechanical component, you might use a little extra drama in the slide presentation if it's the only way to explain everything clearly. LibreOffice has a bunch of great transitions, you can certainly animate objects using paths, and you can even slip in video clips.

Rehearse, rehearse, rehearse

Once you've prepared the hardware and your presentation, rehearsal is where it all comes together. It's critical to rehearse in real time with a hardware demo to get your order and timing straight.

I've made it a rule to rehearse a minimum of three times before a show. Going through your pitch -- including all the motions when demonstrating the hardware -- always exposes failure points and weak sections.

You'll usually massively miss your estimated time the first time you practice. Just make mental notes of the rough spots, then go back through your script or slides and tweak it a bit for clarity and to eliminate awkward parts. Maybe even get a trusted colleague to do the timing and take notes. Resist the urge to stop and edit as you go, because you'll never be able to track the timing of your talk that way. Get your time right first, then refine everything by making small adjustments to the slides, order, knob-turning procedures, dramatic pauses and so on.

I sometimes rehearse five, six or even eight times. That's upward of eight hours, so make sure you get started well ahead of time. When you finally get up in the spotlight, muscle memory kicks in and you're so familiar with the show, a little thing like putting in a battery backward isn't a traumatic experience.

So take a page out of the theater business and choreograph your hardware demo using solid props (the hardware) expertly executed by a confident lead actor -- you. At the end of your performance, you'll have the satisfaction of knowing you did a great job, with the confidence of how to do it even better next time.

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This was last published in April 2015

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How do you prepare to do a hardware demo presentation?
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Great coverage of giving a presentation, no matter the subject. Well said.

While rehearsal is essential, it's equally important to test your work in front of a small audience. Your mirror can't give you feedback and that's what you need. Getting friends into your session is fine, but try to get a few people who are less supportive. You want those criticisms, you need honest feedback.

Let yourself get interrupted and peppered with questions. Let' everyone comment in the group so you're forced to defend your choices. Once you learn to convince people, you can sell them anything.

The point is not so you're embarrassed, but so your ready for mistakes, problems, flubs, random questions. Get 'em over with here before your big presentation.

And, yes, it is this important. This is your chance to show off a bit of hardware you need and showcase your communication skills. It's a great opportunity.
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A couple of general tips may help.

* Know your subject so well that you don't need a script.

* Use your script anyway.

* Know your subject so well that you can easily ad lib your talk.

* Use your script anyway.

* Learn to ad lib. You'll need that skill when you lose your place in the script. And you will lose your place.

*
Test your talk in front of anyone who doesn't know what you know. Did
they stay awake? Did they understand what you just told them...? If not,
revise your talk.

* Delete the jargon and replace it with plain, ordinary English.

* Take out almost all the adverbs and adjectives. Use stronger verbs and better nouns instead. 

* Replace passive voice with active voice. It's much more dramatic and dynamic.

*
If you use PowerPoint or its equivalent, never read the words on the
slide. All you want on the slide is a few indicators, mind-jabs for the
viewers. Your talking so you can fill in the blanks.

* Have fun. Either because the hardware is excessively cool or you enjoy educating others.
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Great tips, ncberns! Sounds like you're probably a good writer, too!
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Thanks Margaret Jones. (Sorry for the long delay - just saw this.) Mostly built on your terrific article. Been writing and lecturing for a long while. Teaching others how to do it between lectures.... 
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Oops. I meant Rob Really's article. 
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