At Microsoft Build, a tech demo reborn as a sitcom

Disclosure: Microsoft is a client of the author.

I used to look forward to Microsoft events because of the fun videos the company did when Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer ran the show. When Gates left, so did much of the fun and humor in events. But at this week’s Build event, Scott Hanselman, Microsoft partner program manager, brought back some of the fun with a non-keynote keynote that played like a sitcom.

It was one of the most compelling demos I’ve ever seen — and I’ve seen some great ones over the years. 

I think Hanselman’s approach, which looks easy but isn’t, is now a best practice. So let’s talk about making demos interesting and more informative. 

The problem with demos: they’re often dull

Demos are problematic at events like Build because most of the audience doesn’t care about what you are showcasing at any given time. People’s needs, skills, and job responsibilities are often very different at large events, meaning demos on the main stage don’t appeal to most of those in what is usually a diverse audience. Even so, many audience members still need to know about the nature of these tools and how they might interact with other tools, platforms, and future projects or jobs. 

Disinterested folks attending these demos may instead escape to email or social media rather than pay attention. And when you’re attending a remote event, the distractions are even worse — making it easy to tune out even when you need to understand something.

Holding audience attention can be problematic. You need to cover the material in a way that is interesting to a broader audience while holding the attention of users who will be interested in wat you’re saying. Appealing to both groups would seem impossible, but Hanselman showed that’s not necessarily so.

The Hanselman fix

Hanselman’s opening keynote this week at Build wasn’t a keynote, it was a demo (unlike any other I’ve seen). Background note: Microsoft is one of the few firms that maintains a video production studio. This capability allows it to produce content that looks like it was created for a TV show with very high quality.  

Using that capability, the company created what played like a sitcom where the audience is taken through a collaborative coding effort using various Microsoft tools and a diverse set of platforms (like Linux) to create a product. 

While this was loosely scripted and done in scenes (the transitions were a tad ugly), it came across as natural and was surprisingly entertaining. More importantly for Microsoft, it showcased how a variety of things like Microsoft Teams and the Surface Hub — coupled with their coding tools — could be used to quickly create a complete offering, during the 30-minute program, including debugging.

(They didn’t create marketing material, though, or talk about distribution.)

The actual coders (it’s been decades since I was a coder) were engaged and excited about what they were seeing. It was also clear that non-coders or former coders like me were also watching and learning instead of losing interest and disengaging.

For Microsoft, mission accomplished.

Wrapping up

What event organizers often seem to forget is the goal of an event: to educate, inform, drive interest, and eventually deliver sales and drive usage of the products they’re showcasing. Often, the team putting on an event is only concerned with filling time and giving visibility to anyone with a title. This practice results in a lot of wasted cost and time for both event organizers and attendees. 

While resource-intensive (I’m a big believer in doing things well or not at all), Hanselman’s approach resulted in a long-form demo that entertained, educated, and showcased how a wide variety of his company’s tools and how they could be used in a collaborative environment to build a high-quality product. 

In a world likely to favor, for the foreseeable future, streamed events over their in-person alternatives, this approach to creating integrated demonstrations that are fun and entertaining while still being  informative should be a best practice.  At Microsoft Build, Hanselman and his team showed how it’s done.