Demo Quicksand

Demo Quicksand is when something goes wrong in a demo and, the more you try to fight it, the worse it gets.

I’m a 90s kid. Most of my references are to 90s things, I play with my NES classic more than my PS4 (but that might be because, now that I have a toddler, I no longer have time for long and immersive video games), and, if you can think of a famous guitar riff from the 90s, I can probably play it.

Those of you who remember TV pre-streaming can remember the days of “let’s just watch whatever movie TNT or TBS is playing (it was the equivalent of “let’s just watch The Office because I can’t find anything else on Netflix”). And in 2000 (close enough to the 90s that we’re going to count it), a film came out that ended up being that “it’s always on cable” movie – I’m talking, of course, about the 2000 film The Replacements.

For those of you who haven’t seen the movie, it’s pretty great – much better than the 41% on Rotten Tomatoes would have you believe. The movie is about a group of ragtag replacement players (“scabs”) who play for the Washington Sentinels (a far better name than the current racist one the real-life Washington football team uses), and is your classic “a bunch of misfits need to come together as a team” story.

The Replacements stars Gene Hackman and Keanu Reeves (fresh off of starring in The Matrix), and the rest of the cast is made up of ensemble players who you’ve seen in other stuff – Jon Favreau (pre-Avengers, so he was still that guy from Swingers who was also Monica’s boyfriend during season 3 of Friends), Orlando Jones (at the time, famous for being on Mad TV and also those 7-Up commercials), Jack Warden (the “grumpy old guy who isn’t Jack Lemmon or Walter Matthau” from a bunch of 90s movies, including the underrated Dirty Work), and David Denman (Roy from The Office).

The reason I’m talking about this movie is that, there’s a scene that’s always stuck with me. Coach McGinty (Hackman) is running a team meeting and asks the team what they’re afraid of. After a bunch of silly insect-related answers (spiders and bees), QB Shane Falco (Reeves) gives a speech about being afraid of “Quicksand.”

You’re playing, and you think everything is going fine, but then one thing goes wrong. And then another. And another. And you try to fight back, but the harder you fight, the deeper you sink. Until you can’t move. Can’t breathe. Because you’re in over your head. Like quicksand.

“Quicksand” is known in more technical communities as a “cascading failure.” Plane crashes aren’t often caused by one system failing, because there are redundancies. But when multiple systems fail, or when pilots take the wrong action to remedy a system, then a bunch of other stuff ends up going wrong – and the combination is what causes the crash. This ends up happening in demos quite often.

(Did the MythBusters bust the myth of “Killer Quicksand” being a thing? Yes. Does that matter for this post? Not even a little bit.)

You’re giving your demo, and you think everything is going fine, but then one thing goes wrong. It’s probably something small. Your demo environment times out. Your screen share stops working. You get an error that you weren’t expecting. But then, you start getting in your head about it. You start worrying about all of the other things that can go wrong. And something else minor does. So, you start getting uncomfortable. Maybe you start rambling a bit. You start using all of those filler words (like, um, now, you know, right!?, etc) that you managed to keep at bay. Then, maybe you make a comment to the audience about it to try to diffuse the tension (“we can see how easy this is, that is, if my demo decides to work” or “it usually works, it must be in a bad mood” or “it worked 5 minutes ago, I swear”), but that seems to make everything worse. When the demo is over, you wonder what went wrong.

The good news is that, there are things that you can do when it comes to getting stuck in quicksand.

  1. Prevent getting stuck with checklists
  2. When you get stuck, breathe
  3. Play through the accidentals

Demo Quicksand Remedies

Demo Quicksand and Business Man trying to escape

Demo Quicksand Remedy: Checklists are your friend

Doctor/Writer Atul Gawande published the excellent book The Checklist Manifesto about 10 years ago. If you haven’t read it, it’s about how to manage errors that happen in complex, technical environments, such as medicine and aviation. The point of the book is that, no matter how much of an expert you are, a well-designed checklist can significantly improve outcomes.

From Atul Gawande’s site:

Gawande begins by making a distinction between errors of ignorance (mistakes we make because we don’t know enough), and errors of ineptitude (mistakes we made because we don’t make proper use of what we know). Failure in the modern world, he writes, is really about the second of these errors, and he walks us through a series of examples from medicine showing how the routine tasks of surgeons have now become so incredibly complicated that mistakes of one kind or another are virtually inevitable: it’s just too easy for an otherwise competent doctor to miss a step, or forget to ask a key question or, in the stress and pressure of the moment, to fail to plan properly for every eventuality. Gawande then visits with pilots and the people who build skyscrapers and comes back with a solution. Experts need checklists–literally–written guides that walk them through the key steps in any complex procedure. In the last section of the book, Gawande shows how his research team has taken this idea, developed a safe surgery checklist, and applied it around the world, with staggering success.

Demoing is a technical job – even for those who don’t consider themselves to be technical. There are lots of systems involved. Your computer. Your A/V equipment (camera, mic, etc). Your internet connection. The software you’re showing. The servers that said software is running on. The video conference/screen share service you’re using. The servers that said video conference/screen share service is on. The audience’s equipment. And each one of these is a potential failure point. And while you can’t control all of these things, many of them are in your control (to a point anyway).

What sorts of things should be on your demo checklist (we’ll be making one soon!) Make sure your equipment is working. Join the meeting 5 minutes early and test the screen share. Check your login to the demo environment. Reset all of your users (if that’s a thing you have to do). Have your backup demo on standby. You get the idea.

You may be thinking “But Ed, I don’t have time to run through a checklist, my day is back-to-back every day!” And you’re right, but this is why a checklist is even more important. All of these tasks are things that are necessary for your demo, but most everyone relies on memory to do them. When we’re stressed, and we’re relying on memory – that’s when mistakes are made. We forget to reset that demo user. We realize that, while we normally use Zoom, the client uses GoToMeeting, so then there’s a bunch of installation and permissions that need to happen (making you late to the meeting, of course). Checklists can keep you on track, give you a quick reminder of all the things you have to do, and get those things done faster.

Demo Quicksand Remedy: Breathe

Daniel Tiger image for Demo Quicksand Breathe Section Post

I have a 2 year old, so there’s a lot of Daniel Tiger happening in my house. If you’re not familiar, Daniel Tiger is a spinoff of the classic Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood that takes place in the Neighborhood of Make-Believe. Every episode follows the same formula(ish) – Daniel is a 4-year-old tiger (son of the original Daniel Striped Tiger from Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood) who has your typical little kid problems: his favorite red sweater is dirty and he has to wear the blue one (but learns he’s still the same Daniel); he doesn’t get to be line-leader and, instead, has to be lunch helper (but learns that lunch helper is a very important job); he has to go potty but there’s no potty on the neighborhood Trolley – you get the idea.

In almost every episode (seriously, my 2 year old LOVES Daniel Tiger), Daniel gets irrationally upset about whatever it is that he’s upset about (he’s 4, that’s what they do), and the adult who teaches him said lesson starts by validating his feelings. “I can see that you’re frustrated, and it’s OK to be frustrated, but we can’t go the park right now.” I strongly believe that we can all learn about positive social interactions by watching more Daniel Tiger.

I’ll cover the idea of “talk to adults just like we talk to toddlers” in another post, but, for now, I’m bringing it up because of a simple song that Daniel sings.

When you feel so mad that you start to roar, take a deep breath and count to four.

As silly as it may sound, this is actually excellent advice, and is exactly what you should do when you get caught in quicksand.

The reason that quicksand can be all-consuming is, just like Keanu told us, “you can’t breathe.” It’s the fight/flight/freeze response taking over. It’s the only thing you can focus on in that moment. And the more you try to fight it, the deeper you sink. So stop trying to fight it (just like any other form of anxiety – the more you fight it, the more it fights back). The best thing you can do in actual quicksand (as we learned from the MythBusters) is to lie back and gently pull yourself out of it. And while you may not be able to lie back during your demos (that would be weird on video), you can gently pull yourself out of it.

When you feel yourself getting stuck, take a deep breath and count to four. Seriously. The audience won’t really think anything of it – that amount of time just feels like you’re pausing for effect. But what you’re actually doing is giving your “rational brain” a chance to catch up to your emotions. You can then think of a course of action to respond. Those few seconds can mean the difference between sinking deeper or getting out of it.

Demo Quicksand Remedy: Play through the accidentals

Anyone who has seen me present can figure out pretty quickly that I’m a musician. My real (non-virtual) background consists of the jackets from some of my favorite records, and also my electric guitar and bass. It’s been about 2 years since I’ve played with a band (if you’re a musician, in Chicago, fully vaccinated and looking to jam, drop me a line), but the last band I played with had shows about once a month.

One thing that I found is that, no matter how many times we practiced, sometimes one of us (myself included) would make a mistake onstage. The singer would forget the words. The drummer would speed up or slow down. One of the instrumentalists would play the wrong note or miss a cue. But, the secret to getting through it was to “play through the accidentals.”

“Play through the accidentals” means “pretend like you meant to do it.” Wrong note? You’re taking some liberties with the part. Forget the words? Turn the mic toward the audience. Audiences rarely notice mistakes if the musicians just act like it was intentional (and yes, most of the audiences I played for were at bars and drunk, but that’s a separate issue for another time).

What audiences don’t react positively to is when the musicians have a cue that they know they made a mistake. When the singer tries to pick up the part somewhere else, but it’s clear that they missed it. When the instrumentalist shakes their head when getting a note wrong, or has some other reaction to it. All of these things tell the audience that you made a mistake, and you know you made a mistake.

When you react to the mistake, something else happens – you now have a heightened awareness of the mistake. All of the sudden, you miss another note. And you notice it. Then you miss another. And another. And before you know it, you’re just trying to get through the part so you can run offstage. Instead, by just playing through it, the mistake gets out of your head almost as quickly as it got there. It doesn’t affect you. Or the audience.

When mistakes happen during your demos or presentations, it’s easy to make some sort of comment to the audience. But that’s a trap. Because once you make that comment, you get in your head about the mistake. You start making more comments, because you’re still in your head. For the Brene Brown fans out there, it’s a shame response. If I say something about this, you can’t say anything.

Here’s the good news – you’re human. Mistakes happen. And it’s OK. As the legendary football coach Vince Lombardi once said, “It’s not whether you got knocked down; it’s whether you get back up.” So the next time you’re in front of an audience and something goes wrong (and you want to roar), just take a deep breath and count to four. Your demos will be all the better for it.

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