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This chapter is from the book

Antipattern: Dead Demo


Also Known As

Live Tool Use, Live Coding, Live Demo


Use a lengthy demonstration of a tool or technique as a time sink to counterbalance a lack of compelling presentation material.


Motivations for this antipattern (which is all too common in the software world, where all the authors reside) include the following:

  • The presenter has only enough prepared material for a portion of the allotted time, so he or she uses the remainder to “riff” with the tool.
  • The presenter wants to show off his or her skills with a tool or technique—not the tool itself.
  • The presenter knows the rest of the presentation is a dull recitation of bullet points and that watching paint dry is more interesting.

Some presenters believe that, by the strength of their demonstration of a tool or technique, they can create something entertaining, informative, and meaningful beyond what’s possible in a normal presentation. They are almost always incorrect. Not to mention that Murphy always attends your most important presentations and sits in the front row.


This antipattern manifests whenever you threaten to distract from the content of your presentation via flashy showmanship or cover up the fact that you aren’t saying anything new.

A Dead Demo often aspires to be a proper Live Demo but falls short because of the daunting difficulties inherent in implementing the Live Demo pattern well.

Many conference attendees like—or even prefer—the Live Demo style and will frequently tolerate a Dead Demo, mistaking one for the other. But any such preference is based on an invalid comparison. When comparing someone using a tool poorly to reading a Bullet-Riddled Corpse presentation, people will prefer any sign of life to abject boredom.

Another consequence of this antipattern is a compression of the amount of material you can cover. Inevitably, demonstrating the tool consumes some of the presentation time—time that could be packed with more information. We estimate that even outstanding technical demonstrators who employ this technique cover at most only 60 percent of the volume of material that could be done as a presentation. A well-done presentation that uses some of the patterns appearing later in this chapter (e.g., Lipsync or Traveling Highlights) can cover more material in more detail with significantly less stress on the presenter. Information density is the primary trade-off when you use this antipattern.

Watching someone backspace over mistakes is grueling. Most people don’t type in front of an audience, and they don’t realize it’ll be harder than doing it at their desks. When typing as performance, typists tend to speed up because they have a palpable sense that people are waiting, which causes more mistakes, which causes even more speedup to compensate for increasingly lost time. Neal tells nascent presenters that he’ll gladly watch them live-code computer software if they are proficient enough to allow him to remove their backspace key.

Known Uses

Virtually every conference that has even the slightest technical content includes some presentations that succumb to this antipattern.

Related Patterns

The Live Demo pattern is the symmetrical good pattern to this antipattern. Lipsync, Traveling Highlights, and Emergence all illustrate techniques for avoiding this antipattern.

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