How the Rashomon effect hurts your software demos: 3 things you can do about it

How the Rashomon effect hurts your demos: 3 things you can do about it

In 1950, Japanese director Akira Kurosawa created Rashomon, which is widely regarded as his masterpiece. If you haven’t seen it (in which case, you should definitely go see it), Rashomon illustrates how our individual perspectives influence how we remember events. Understanding recall and effects are critical to presentation preparation.

Rashomon is that rare film that has transcended its own status as film, influencing not just the moving image but the culture at large. Its very name has entered the common parlance to symbolize general notions about the relativity of truth and the unreliability, the inevitable subjectivity, of memory. In the legal realm, for example, lawyers and judges commonly speak of “the Rashomon effect” when firsthand witnesses confront them with contradictory testimony.

Stephen Prince, Criterion.com

We are all the heroes of our own stories – sales is no different

In Rashomon, a woodcutter, a priest and a commoner are taking shelter from the rain at the Rashomon gate (to Kyoto), and they begin discussing a recent trial in which the woodcutter and priest were witnesses.

Things started when the woodcutter found a dead samurai in the woods, but that’s about the only element of the story that’s undisputed. During the trial, we hear the testimonies of the 3 characters who were involved in the events – a bandit, the samurai (via a medium) and the samurai’s wife.

Each version of the story follows a similar structure, but each character’s version is distorted in a way that flatters themselves. In the Bandit’s version of the story, he seduced the wife and valiantly dueled with the samurai, ultimately killing him. But in the samurai’s version, the bandit raped the wife, who then agrees to go with the him so long as he kills the samurai; the bandit refuses, the wife runs away, and the samurai commits suicide. After we hear from the 3 characters, the woodcutter admits that he saw the whole thing and tells a very different version of the events. In the end, we don’t actually know what happened.

While Rashomon was the first of its kind, this type of storytelling is now common. Ever seen a TV episode where we see the same story but told in flashbacks from different characters? And each character’s version is a little different? That all started with Rashomon.

Our memories can be…less than accurate

Have you ever had a conversation with a friend and, when discussing it later, you realize that you have drastically different recollections of what was said? Sometimes to the point that it almost feels like you were in different conversations? That’s the Rashomon effect at work.

Memory is incredibly subjective – we don’t exactly have a camera built into our heads. We remember events viewed through the lens of our own perspective and biases. Often, our memories make us look like the hero of the event, even if that’s not quite accurate (we don’t necessarily do this consciously). I’ll cover the science of this in another post, but there is quite a bit of research to support this.

So what does this old movie have to do with sales?

Think about a meeting where you walk out the door thinking you absolutely crushed it, but then you find out, maybe even the next day, that you didn’t win the deal. It’s happened to all of us (myself included), and it’s the worst.

After you leave, the audience will likely have a discussion. And in that discussion, individuals may remember the presentation details a bit differently than you do – because, like everyone else, their memories are clouded by their own perspective and biases. Some of them may have already had a preconceived notion about your technology and believe that you confirmed their opinions, which may or may not be accurate (confirmation bias). Others may have simply “heard” something about your solution, but they don’t remember where they heard it (“I heard it doesn’t perform well”) – so even if it was from an unreliable source, they will still believe it to be true (source amnesia). Or maybe you dropped in a Deadly Demo Phrase and inadvertently offended someone, so all they’ll remember is that your demo or presentation was bad.

To make things worse, as the individuals discuss what happened, they will likely get to a consensus. And that consensus may not align with what actually happened, but the audience may believe that the collective version of your presentation is the truth (groupthink). That could leave your deal high and dry in stage 3, because the audience doesn’t remember your value.

Here are 3 things you can do in your next sales demo so the audience remembers your presentation the way it happened

Tell stories during your demos – and try to elicit an emotional response

We are wired to use stories to make sense of the world. And we remember emotions much more than we remember the actual details of an event (thus the oft repeated Maya Angelou quote: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”) So get the audience to feel good about what you’re doing in your presentation by making it about them. It’s not enough to have a story – you need to have a story they can relate to or, even better, one about them. Even if they don’t remember your software, they’ll remember you and your demo, and just being top of mind may be enough to put you over the top (availability heuristic).

Be explicit about the value you’re showing during your demo or presentation

It’s easy to leave things to interpretation, especially when we think there is only one plausible interpretation. For example, we may think that the benefits of a faster process are obvious, but the audience might not pick up on it. So tell them – “this process is faster, which will save your team valuable time and resources.” Don’t leave value on the table for the audience to find and expect them to find it – they’ll miss it more often then you think.

Always focus your sales demo or presentation on benefits, not features

If someone’s memory is, shall we say, flawed – do you think they’re going to remember each feature that they saw? What about when they’re comparing your solution to 3 competitors? But, they will remember if your solution will make their life better (save them time or money, get them promoted, etc). So do some discovery, find the features that actually matter, and make sure they’re in your demo. And always close with your benefits.

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