2Win! Global Blog

Perfecting Your Demonstration Techniques: The Tell-Show-Tell Method

[fa icon="calendar"] 08/03/2015 1:01 PM / by Ross Jacobson

Ross Jacobson


It happens all the time. We set about showing a prospect how easy our software can be, but the feedback is that, “it seems too complicated.” How can that be? Certainly the prospect doesn’t want us to take away any of that great functionality? We’ve done our best to simplify the automation of complex business processes.
The simple fact is that modern, comprehensive software can appear too complicated, particularly during a product demonstration. In all fairness, prospects are simply trying to judge the ability of their people to learn and operate your software efficiently. They are trying to predict the impact that the software will have on their business operation, and they are using your product demonstration to help them in making that prediction. 

The Typical Demo Scene

Take a minute and think about how functionality is normally demonstrated. A presales person stands up, takes command of the keyboard, and brings up the first screen of the process being shown. Twenty or thirty minutes later they step away from the keyboard, saying something like, “…and that’s the order entry process. Any questions?” And that is about where the complexity comment usually comes in.

The Invisible Demo Clock

All of us have a mental stopwatch in our heads. Various things will cause this watch to start and stop, and subconsciously we’re always evaluating the elapsed time shown on that watch. Right or wrong, our perceptions of complexity and simplicity can be molded by the running of this mental clock. It’s part of our culture: Simplicity is associated with brevity while anything that is perceived as time consuming is often viewed as complicated.

With this mental association in mind, let’s go back to that demo and look at it from the prospect’s perspective. The prospect’s mental stopwatch started the moment the presales person’s fingers touched the keyboard. Unfortunately, the watch didn’t stop until he or she stepped away from that keyboard some thirty minutes later. So in the prospect’s mind, it just took thirty minutes to enter an order. That software must be really complicated to operate!

What Really Happened

OK, let’s be fair. It didn’t really take thirty minutes to enter the order and the prospect doesn’t consciously equate those thirty minutes with the efficacy of the software. But somewhere, in the back of his or her mind, the “complexity” question creeps in.

About now, the software professional reading this is saying, “Wait a minute, a lot happened in those thirty minutes. It wasn’t just a half hour of entering information on a keyboard.” While that statement is true, it is also the source of the problem. During that thirty minute demo, the presales person spent some amount of time actually operating the software, but they also spent significant amounts of time setting the scenario, explaining the operation of the software, highlighting benefits, and exploring options within the software. Hence a three minute operation – entering an order – became a thirty minute demonstration.

Tell–Show–Tell, Don’t Show–Tell-Tell

The typical demonstration method, the one we’ve just described, is called a “Show–Tell–Tell”. It starts with fingers on a keyboard. In fact, the software itself serves as a sort of guide to the demonstration, much like notes for a speech or slides for a presentation. The screens being projected become the backdrop as the story of the software and its benefits unfold. This technique is the norm in the industry, used by novices and veterans alike. But there is a better way.

Earlier we discussed the idea of the prospect’s mental stopwatch. That stopwatch starts running when the first screen comes up and doesn’t stop until the last screen disappears. This leads to the perception of complexity. So to eliminate that complexity, we simply need to recalibrate the watch.
Imagine the same demo conducted this way: The presenter, stepping away from the keyboard and with nothing showing on the projector, starts by telling the audience what they will see. They explain the steps and key features that will be shown, perhaps even creating a short story that typifies the work being demonstrated. They point out a couple of key benefits to be highlighted in the demo, ensuring that the audience is comfortable with what they are about to see. This process might take a few minutes depending on the situation, but that’s OK – the clock is not running yet. Then, with a clear break point, they step to the keyboard and the first screen appears. They walk crisply through the process, highlighting the important benefits once again, but not straying from the stated setup and not having to explain each step. On the last screen, they blank out the projector, step away from the keyboard, and recap the benefits of what the audience just saw. The prospect’s mental stopwatch has stopped and now shows an elapsed time of something like ten minutes. Wow, this software seems pretty easy! This is the Tell–Show–Tell.

Its Not as Easy as it Sounds

The concept of moving from Show-Tell-Tell approach to a Tell-Show-Tell approach is just this: Take a typical demo scenario and split it into thirds. Move the setup (context and scenario) work to the front, and move the benefits to the back. Don’t touch the keyboard until the setup is finished, and step away from the keyboard before detailing the benefits. Time actually spent in the software is reduced, as is the perception of complexity.

As simple as this sounds, we are all creatures of habit and presales professionals pride themselves on their ability to have their fingers dance through the software, improvising their way through any situation, using the software alone as their guide. Tell-Show-Tell requires preparation and practice. It is only one of several techniques available to remove the perception of complexity, but it is the foundation for all the other techniques. 

Is This Fair?

All of this may seem just a little unfair. Are we discounting the intelligence of the prospect, or resorting to some sort of trickery to make our software seem easier? Not at all. In fact, Tell-Show-Tell gives the prospect a more realistic view of the actual operation of the software. Let’s go all the way back to the beginning of this discussion. As noted, the prospect is trying to determine how this software will impact daily operations. But concepts like simplicity, complexity, and ease of use are not statements of fact, they are perceptions of degree. A typical demonstration is not at all illustrative of actual operations. Demonstrations are filled with all kinds of explanations and explorations that would never be applicable in actual operations. Can you imagine an order entry person actually stopping at each step to explain what they were doing and the benefits of each step? If they did, it truly would take thirty minutes to enter an order!

So Tell-Show-Tell is a demonstration technique that gives the prospect a more accurate picture of how the software will perform in live operations. The mental stopwatch is recalibrated to better reflect the real world of using the software. 


There’s an old saying that in theory, theory and practice are the same, but in practice they are not. In theory, our prospect could logically work through everything in a demonstration and reach all the right conclusions about the software. But in practice, they won’t. In practice, if you are using Tell-Show-Tell techniques and your competitor is using the more common Show-Tell-Tell technique, you will win the ease-of-use battle every time.

Ross Jacobson

Written by Ross Jacobson

The co-creator of the highly successful Demo2Win! program. Ross’ grass roots approach to communication and education keep our team and our programs realistic and relevant to you our client. Ross has also delivered hundreds of workshops over the years and is a highly skilled facilitator.

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