ResourcesBlogBehind the Product: What to Do When Your Demo Cracks—Tesla Cybertruck

Behind the Product: What to Do When Your Demo Cracks—Tesla Cybertruck


In our “Behind the Product” series, we discuss examples of products or services that highlight a particular product management concept or principle. As product managers, we’re constantly watching new and old products, and the marketing associated with them, to find examples for our training and materials that we can use to exemplify good, or not so good, practices in product management.

Demo Distress

As I watched the Tesla Cybertruck demo literally shatter right before our eyes the other night, I confess I had some sympathy for Elon Musk. I’ve been there—I suspect many other Product Managers have been there too. You’ve planned this for months. You’ve stretched your development team to get it done, you’ve practiced your script, you’ve run through the demo a dozen times—it’s all working! Then, despite your best-laid plans for a great product demo—things go wrong.

If you don’t know what I’m writing about here, pause for a few moments and watch the Tesla Cybertruck unveil below, and fast-forward to 7:19. I’ll wait…

Hopefully, now you have a little sympathy as well. As I said, this has happened to me too. Not on such a grand scale, mind you, but I’ve been there. In my case, it was a software demo on a trade show floor, with an audience of only a few people. They were important buyers that a salesperson wanted to impress. Try as I might, I couldn’t get the demo to go past the third step. Restart the program—same thing. Restart it again. Nope, still stuck. Reboot the computer? No time for that. So, I had to punt and move on, with that embarrassed look on my face, and an unhappy saleswoman displeased in the background.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. Perhaps Mr. Musk and the Tesla crew should have spent more time preparing for the demo—practiced it first to make sure it will work. Trust me, these kinds of demos, especially on such a large scale, are practiced and rehearsed a number of times. In fact, here’s the video that shows an earlier test where the steel ball did bounce off of the Tesla Cybertruck’s “armor glass.” It was impressive! So, yes, preparation and rehearsal are definitely part of what you as a Product Manager must do to increase the odds of demo success. But, as you’ve seen, even then—things go wrong.

So, what then should a Product Manager do to try and increase the odds of success of that really crucial demo?

I’m going to give my take on this in summary, and then discuss the points in more depth.

Tips to reduce the odds of demo fail:
1) Prepare and practice, practice, practice
2) Consider the risk of failure and act accordingly
3) With rare exceptions, never “try again”
4) Have a backup plan
5) For demos that have to be repeated, refresh the demo frequently

Prepare and practice

To make your demo go as well as possible, preparation is essential.

Here are some tips to help you prepare:

  • Start from the right place: Be sure the demo is focused on presenting benefits—how will the product help the customer solve their problems or experience delight? Stay focused on the top 2-3 benefits as well—a short but impressive demo will leave a lasting impression far longer than a review of 30 features. So, don’t show lots of screens with features, or show off every button or handle.
  • Write a demo script: Include a talk track, and again, keep it succinct.
  • Keep the demo simple: The KISS principle (“Keep It Simple Stupid”) is crucial here! The more you have to “reset” things for each subsequent demo to go effectively, the more time it will take to prepare for the next demo run, and the more things can go wrong.
  • Run it independently: As much as possible, keep each step of the demo independent of the others. That way, if one step fails, it doesn’t ruin the rest of the demo. This isn’t always possible, but at least have more than one segment of the demo that can run independently, so you can move on to something else when a step fails.
  • Practice the demo multiple times: After a few times on your own, bring in an audience to get feedback and constructive criticism to tune and refine the demo and your script.
  • Prep everyone: Be sure to prepare every person that will be giving the demo, so they know the script, and the backup plan (see below).

What does failure look like?

This is a crucial step that is often missed—stop and think about how things will look when the demo fails. For example:

Elon Musk standing in front of the newly released cybertruck with broken glass after the product failure.

After the windows were shattered, Mr. Musk was forced to give the rest of his demo with these broken windows behind him. Ugh.

So, think about this from two perspectives, and have a plan:

  1. How bad will it look if this demo fails? If the impact will be catastrophic, consider not doing this part of the demo, or prepare a video or use slides to show that element of the demo, because it’s guaranteed to work. The Tesla Cybertruck team did this for practical reasons when it came to shooting the car with a handgun. Way too many things could have gone wrong with a weapon at a demo so they wisely took this route—and it worked!
  2. How easily can you “move on” when the demo fails? If it’s just a matter of clearing the screen or going to another sample (very hard to do with a truck!), then prepare for this possibility, and you can cover up the failure more easily.

Think through all of the ways your demo could fail and prepare accordingly. Work with your Development team to know where the demo is weakest, and work with your Marketing team to determine which pitfalls to avoid, and which you can tolerate.

When at first you don’t succeed, try, try again—except in demos!

Don’t repeat a failed demo step. This tip is so hard to follow—I know, and I’ve messed up on it more than once. The pressure is on, and you want the product to look good. But trust me—if a part of your demo fails, just move on. You can say something like “Oops, well that didn’t work, I’ll have to look at that later” (no expletives please!), and then go on to the next benefit of the demo.

This was a part of the Tesla Cybertruck demo failure that was preventable—once the first window cracked, Mr. Musk and Mr. von Holzhausen should have quit while they were behind.

Trying it again is just asking for trouble, and trouble it was. Please learn from this mistake, and just move on.

Have a backup plan

There have already been a few tips in here that mention things you can do to reduce the risk of failure, but also to have a plan for when things fail. Notice I keep saying when—not if. Demos fail. If Tesla can’t prevent demo failure, what makes you think you can do any better?

So, have a set of contingencies for what you will do when your demo fails. This list includes the earlier comments and adds a few more, so you have one check-list for your backup plan:

  • Design your demo to be as simple as possible, with as few “setup” or “reset” steps as possible.
  • Separate your demo into steps and segments, so that if a step fails in one demo segment, you can move on to another segment of that demo that doesn’t rely on the success of that step.
  • Have more than one sample available, so you can switch to a new one if something goes wrong.
  • For software and applications, make it easy to move from one segment of the demo to another. At one company, our design team had a home icon on every screen of the demo, so that if something wasn’t working, one tap cleared the failure and took you back to the main menu, where you could immediately launch into another part of the demo. This was brilliant—saved me several times during a long trade show week in Barcelona. Design your demo accordingly!
  • Have a video or presentation available that you can switch to if the demo unit is not working properly. Better to be able to still show off the product benefits than be completely stuck if the demo fails completely.
  • With failure in mind, write in your demo script what you will say when something goes wrong so that you already know what you’re going to say.

Developing a backup plan not only prepares you for the inevitable demo failure, but it also gives you and any other demonstrators confidence and comfort at the moment. When something goes wrong—you know what to do. You’ve got this! The demo will run that much more smoothly when something goes awry.

Keep the demo fresh

For physical products, food samples, plants, etc. have a plan to keep your demo fresh for as long as necessary. Many demo units are often made from prototypes or are custom-built for the occasion. In these circumstances, you must consider the durability of the demo. How many times can the demo be presented before it will wear out?

At more than one company, I’ve worked on the trade show floor for two or three days, having to give a demo repeatedly perhaps dozens of times a day. In these circumstances, be sure your demo will be up to the task. The article I linked to earlier that showed the successful strike against the Tesla Cybertruck’s armor glass brought this issue up as well. The act of practicing on the truck’s windows before the actual demo very likely weakened the glass. This is where a caveat applies to practice for your demo—know the demo’s limits and act accordingly.

At one company, we had a very sophisticated demo unit that would show how a sample automobile touchscreen could give different kinds of physical feedback for various types of touches on the screen. Many of the parts in this demo were custom and hand-built. We had two units for the Consumer Electronics Show (CES), but the product manager responsible for this product and the demo units went a step further. Working with the development team, he knew the hand-made parts for the prototype were only going to live for about 50 cycles of the demo, so he brought a second set of parts for the demos at CES, and swapped them out halfway through the show.

Plan for a successful demo!

Demos can be scary, and they will go wrong, but they are such an amazing opportunity to show off the benefits of your product, that they are worth the risk. Much of the Tesla Cybertruck demo was very successful… yet, what everyone has been talking more about has been those two shattered windows.

Hopefully, the tips in this article will help you increase the odds of success for your demo, and help you minimize the impacts when a demo goes wrong. Go forth and demo boldly!

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Roger Snyder
November 27, 2019