How To Do Better Hardware Demos [tips]

Written by Rob Reilly

Things can go terribly wrong with hardware demos. So here’s how to show yours to the world — with a minimum of risk and a lot of panache.

aNewDomain — Hardware demos are complex beasts. Not only do you have to pitch your ideas to a room full of strangers, there are countless ways your talk can get off track. The hardware may fail, you could put a battery in the wrong way or you could just space out on your train of thought.

To ease your apprehension, I’ve compiled a few tips and techniques to help you make your hardware presentation go smoothly. Follow these steps so you can breathe a little easier the next time you step out into the spotlight.


Make It Stable And Reliable

The most important tip for doing hardware demos is to get your prototype hardware working reliably before starting to put your slide show together. If your hardware isn’t stable and predictable it’ll be impossible to run through a problem-free presentation. There’s no way to stay on time and you’ll panic as you try to get it working.

Your credibility will suffer, too, if you go ahead with a talk using untested or unreliable hardware, even if it is a prototype. Get it to a minimum viable product (MVP) state. You want it at that stable level before you show it to the world, which includes an audience at a big conference. And in the interest of reliability, pass on discussing complicated features and capabilities, in the interest of reliable,behavior.

Stay Focused And Keep It Simple 

Reliable hardware behavior is a result of analyzing failure points and eliminating as many as possible. Simplify everything. The more steps in your “presentation process”, the more opportunity for something to go wrong. For example, instead of powering up a little DigiSpark project by plugging a battery into a holder, wire in a switch that you can flip, when you do the talk. That way you won’t try to put the battery in backwards and wonder why the darned thing won’t light.

The same goes for slides. I use LibreOffice Impress for my slide shows on my Linux notebooks and devices. My old 14-inch Asus duo-core notebook runs great with Impress, including the display of high-resolution images on slides. I typically don’t use transitions, animations or videos. I just think they’re more distracting than helpful.

Don’t take this as an absolute. If you are showing off hardware with a strong animation, artistic, or complex mechanical component, the only way you might be able to explain everything clearly, is using an animation or a bit of drama with your slides. Use it. LibreOffice has a bunch of great transitions, you can certainly animate objects using paths, and you can even embed video clips. Most of the time, I don’t get that complicated.

Compliment Your Hardware Demo With Your Slides

Figure about one slide per minute of time for your presentation. Take out a minute or two out for playing with the hardware. So, with a 40 minute talk, you might have 30 slides and 3 to 5 two-minute mini segments where you fiddle with dials, make a servo move, or perform some other physical hardware-related demonstration task.

Like I said earlier, I don’t typically use fancy transitions, fades, or animations. I like to focus the audience attention on the hardware being demoed, not how clever we can make the slides. If you use text on a slide, try to keep it to 3 or 4 lines. Keep it simple and terse, just like commands in Linux.

You might also consider limiting your talk to three main topics. That way you can have an exciting introduction, the three topics, some razzle-dazzle time showing off your hardware, and a call to action closing statement, all within a 40-minute time slot. You could also figure in 5 to 10 minutes of question and answer time, if you so desire. Sometimes I do Q&A, sometimes I don’t. I like to use a few slides to introduce a new topic then move the audience over to the physical hardware and so I can drive home what I just explained.

Build In Your Contingencies

How do you plan for contingencies? Run through your presentation, in real time, once or twice.

A great rule of thumb is to make sure to run through your presentation a minimum of 3 times, before a show. Here’s why. Practicing your talk in real time, with your slides and hardware exposes the failure points and weak sections of your presentation. The first time through you’ll probably go way over time, it’s likely the way you show the hardware will be awkward, or you simply will realize you have a few things out of order.

There are your baselines, now go iron out the bugs.

If something is a bottleneck or fails, mark it down as needing either simplification or a contingency. Try to eliminate the opportunity for a failure first. Then, start planning what you’ll do if a single point of failure will stop your presentation. For example, if you start flying your unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) around and the motors abruptly stop, plunging the machine to the floor, you might have a backup flying machine ready and waiting in the wings, to use to complete your demo.

Perhaps, with something very simple, like putting a battery in backwards on a little DigiSpark blinky LED demo, you can just say what it should do, and then move on in the talk. A demo of how a remote camera works on your UAV, will need either high reliability or an alternative path to continue on with the talk.

The bottom line for reliability is test, test, test. Do it far enough ahead of your talk so you have confidence that everything will go smoothly, regardless of what happens when you are on stage.

Wrap Up

A good hardware demo is choreographed. It’s a well planned play, expertly executed by a confident lead actor…you.

You are your hardware demo and it is show business. Plan, test, tweak, and practice. It certainly takes time and effort. At the end of your performance, you’ll have the satisfaction of doing a great job, with new knowledge of how to do it better next time.

For, I’m .

Based in Orlando, Rob Reilly is an independent consultant, writer, and speaker specializing in Linux/OSS, Open Hardware, technology media, and the mobile lifestyle. Follow him on Twitter @RobReilly and find his posts on Google + here.