Over the past few years, I’ve seen hundreds of pitches and demos. One of the most painful scenarios I’ve witnessed is when someone creates a killer hack, but the presentation falls flat, leaving the judges and audience with no idea of the true awesomeness of the hack. This post seeks to rectify that problem by providing you with the tools needed to create a winning hackathon demo. This post is the result of combined experiences witnessing live winning hackathon demos with recent training our team received by Decker communications.

Fundamentals Win Hackathons

Later in this post I’ll get into some specific principles from Decker, but first I want to share the basics of any good public speaker. Your demo and hack still need to be good of course, but nailing these best practices can really make it shine.

Eye Communication

Eye contact is one of the best ways to establish a connection with your audience. Of course, this is difficult when you have more than 10 people in the audience, as most people tend to repeatedly scan the audience, including myself. One technique is to pick several people in the audience to whom you will direct your gaze, but for no longer than three to five seconds at a time to avoid discomfort.

Posture and Movement

In order to convey confidence and credibility, it’s important to maintain a healthy, strong posture. Move away from the podium and walk towards those that ask questions. If you encounter a hostile question, acknowledge the asker, but then answer while looking/walking towards other members of the audience. Take the time to consider the effect of posture and movement on your presentation as you flesh out the final details.

Gestures and Facial Expressions

Use large gestures to emphasize your key points. Smile as much as you can while talking and unleash the untapped power of smiling. Use other facial expressions to emphasize your key points as appropriate.

Voice and Vocal Clarity

Be sure that your voice projects as far into the audience as possible without overwhelming those in the front. Practice with a friend standing in the back of the room, if possible. Vary your tone and pitch as you emphasize/de-emphasize key points.

Language and Pausing

Use language appropriate to your audience, avoiding jargon. Remember, you are seeking to convey your message to the audience as clear and simple as you can. You want the audience to understand what you are saying with little effort.

Don’t be afriad of pausing during your presention. It’s a good strategy to stop and collect your thoughts when needed or to let a particular key point sink in. You may want to syncronize your pauses with key imagery. Know that a pause that seems like minutes to you, will seem like seconds to the audience. Avoid Um and other similar filler noises, and instead simply pause. Silence is golden.

Dress and Appearance

For most of us developers, dressing appropriately means a nice T-shirt with jeans and comfortable shoes. While not the most important element of your presentation, remember that many will judge quickly on apperance first.

How the Pyramids Can Help You Win a Hackathon

Decker suggests that you begin organizing your talk based on the Decker Cornerstones™

The Big Idea

At the very top of the triangle, you write the idea that you want to convey to the audience. Answer the question: What is the most important part of my hack? Imagine that you only have one minute to describe your hack, what do you want the audience to know?


In the middle of the triangle, describe the audience. Thinking through who the judges and audience are will help you understand how to change your messaging for maximum impact. Read the judges bios, research the sponsors and spend some time getting to know your fellow hackers.

Action Steps

Along the left side of the triangle define both a general and specific action step you want the audience to do. Try to engage the audience by having them go to a specific URL or interact with your hack in some way that captivates their attention. For example, if you are hacking on the SendGrid API you could use the Inbound Parse API to have the audience email in responses.


Along the right side of the triangle, define two benefits the intended target of the hack will experience.

From Pyramids to a Grid

Now, you will translate the messaging you developed in the Decker Cornerstones™ into the Decker Grid™. You will keep the grid with you during your talk to make sure you hit all your key points. I will be describing a truncated version of the Grid, called the Quick Grid.

The Quick Grid consists of five rows and four columns. In the end, if you run out of time, you should be able to give your demo based only on the first and last rows.

The first row is your opening. Start with a SHARP (described below), then The Big Idea, General Action Step and the Benefit.

The next three rows are the body of the demo, where you start with a key point on each row, followed by three sub-points. Remember, that if time is short, you’ll be skipping these rows.

The last row is your closing. Here you review The Big Idea, describe the Specific Action Step, Benefit and close with a SHARP.

Five Elements of a SHARP Hackathon Demo

Photo by ShellyS

In order to make your demo’s story stick, I suggest you use Decker SHARPs™ technique. According to the Decker Grid™, you want to employ a SHARP at the beginning and end of your demo. Use one of the following techniques. Take your time on this one, since most people remember most clearly the beginning and end of your demo.

1. Stories

Create a story such that you draw the audience into an experience. Preferrably the experience of your target user while they interact with your hack.

2. Humor

Make the audience laugh with a relevant joke. You’ll lighten up the mood and open their minds to your message. Don’t force it though, especially if your hack touches on subjects not closely aligned with humorous situations.

3. Analogies

Use analogies to help support your main point and help the audience relate to the problems your hack solves through scenarious already easily understood.

4. References

Utilize a quote that helps hammer home The Big Idea. Bonus points if the quote comes from someone your audience can relate to.

5. Pictures/Visuals

Photos and video are very powerful tools to help get your point across. Generally, you won’t have time for a video, so choose a photo that best helps tell the story of your demo.

Now that you are equipped with the tools to give a killer demo, take a trip to a hackathon and let us know what you win. And don’t forget to share your SendGrid hacks with us.

If you want to dig deeper into the Decker Method™ of communication on your own, look out for Decker open enrollment.

If you have any suggestions or examples of especially good demos, please share them with us in the comments below.

Elmer Thomas is SendGrid's Developer Experience Engineer. His mission is to help SendGrid live up to its slogan: "Email Delivery. Simplified" by improving the lives of developers, both internally and externally. Via all sorts of hackery, of course. Follow his exploits on Twitter and GitHub.