Zen and the Art of Sugarcraft Demonstrating

I have attended quite a few Days of Sharing and cake club meetings. I had a media coordinator for one of the large groups write and ask if I would tackle the dos and don’ts of demonstrating. I read her notes and thought about how right she is! As sugar artists, we rarely have trained for doing presentations before a group. There are definite things that must be taken into consideration and those things differ depending on whether the demonstration is being shown on a big screen or not.

Just as being a talented decorator does not mean you can teach, being a talented artist does not mean you have the gift for live presentations. I am lucky because my drama training, disc jockey days and courtroom experience give me a comfort level in front of crowds that others might not have. I hope that sharing my tips with you will make you more inclined to demo for your next event OR will make you a stronger, more confident demonstrator.

Be Prepared.
Know what you are going to present. Have handouts for the attendees. Be rested. Be dressed professionally. Be early for your presentation.

Involve the Audience.
Confucius said it best. “Tell me and I’ll forget; show me and I may remember; involve me and I’ll understand. “. Whenever possible, have items to pass around the room. If people touch the thickness of the gum paste, they will better understand how thin to roll it. Let them handle as much as possible. They will be able to take close up photos and to really “get” what you are showing them.

Be Ready for Questions.
I will promise you right now that people will want to ask you questions. The questions may not be on the subject you are demonstrating! That happens all the time. Be ready to share your knowledge as time allows.

Be Honest with the Audience.
If you don’t know the answer to a question, admit it. Someone else in the audience may know the answer. This happened to me at the Houston Weekend of Sharing. I didn’t know the answer, but another demonstrator did and we all gained by me being honest.

Don’t just be an Advertisement.
Even if you are promoting or sharing a product, you don’t want your demo to feel like an infomercial. I may prefer a certain gum paste or fondant, and I may tell you what I am using. I will also tell you what you need to do to work with other brands. People turn off if they feel like you are just trying to make a sale. You are there to show how to do a project or a technique. Never forget that your motivation should be inspiration and education, not commerce.

Know the Pitfalls.
You need to have enough experience with your demo subject that you can tell or warn them about common errors and explain how to avoid them. Sharing your stories or those of others makes the subject relatable and helps them recognize when something is going wrong.

Don’t Overwhelm the Audience.
Some people feel the need to explain every little thing and, in some respects, show how knowledgable they are about a subject. If you get into technical properties, you may start losing people – not because it is over their head, but because it is not what they came for. When you test drive a car, you want to see how it handles. You learn how to program the radio and what tire pressure you need on your own time. You cannot show how easy your project is if you make it seem complicated or intimidating.

Share Stories and Be Spontaneous.
Do NOT read from a script. Do not speak in a monotone. Be excited about your product or technique and plan to share your enthusiasm. If you are by nature funny, be funny. If you are goofy, be goofy. Be yourself – that is who was asked to demo…not a robotic, serious version of you! Women mostly drive by landmarks and they retain knowledge by the stories that explain what you are doing more than by a dry reading of steps to follow. When someone is at home later, they will remember that story or joke that explained a step and will more likely be successful in their attempt to recreate your item.

Be Ready for Your Closeup.
If there is a camera shooting your demo for display on the big screen, you must demo to the camera. Allow me to repeat, demo to the camera, not to the audience. Keep your hands and your work in a tight zone so that it can be seen on the big screen. Explain your step, do that step, pause and let the camera focus on that step. Do not raise the item up trying to show the audience. The only ones who can see that are possibly the people on the front row, and even then, they might not really see it well. The camera is there to be their eyes. Use it. It may be on your left side or right side. Adapt your presentation so that your hands get out of the way as much as possible.

Work Bigger.
It is incredibly hard for most of the cameras to pick up the really small things. Sometimes the camera is just set at a certain place and no one is running it. If it cannot zoom in to show your work, you need to create bigger pieces, if possible so that the camera can pick it up. For instance, if I am showing how to make fingers on a hand for a small figurine, I generally make a ginormous hand so that each of the steps is easier to see.

Work Bolder.
I know that traditional royal icing work is white on white. I understand that you might like working in pastels. Here is the problem: the camera has trouble showing those subtle color differences. A friend of mine was demonstrating something white against a very pale background. It was all a white blur on camera. For demonstrating, you need to put aside personal preferences and go bold so that the camera can pick up what you are doing. I was teaching dusting recently and selected bold lily colors so that the audience could see them, but I forgot that because my petal was white and I was dusting on a white napkin, they could not see how I started each time. Luckily, someone got me a dark surface to work on so that the beginning stages could be seen.

Think About Your Outfit on Camera.
Have you ever watched a newscast and had the tie on the anchor make you dizzy? Some patterns wreak havoc with a camera. Some color tones are too deep and pull the camera focus. A mid range color is great, with a larger pattern accents if you want those.

No Camera? No Problem.
Some groups are smaller and they do not have a camera setup. You need to think about how you can show people in the back of the room what you are doing. For these demos, I generally stand. If you cannot see the audience, there is no way they can see what you are doing. Even if I am doing a flower, I will roll it out on the table, then lift it and show each stage to the audience. I try to have enough stages of my project pre made so that as I finish each one, I pass that stage around the room.

Demo Out.
Some people are amazing at what they do, but they work tightly to themselves and no one can see what they do. You have to train yourself to do your project in an open fashion so that people can see. I spoke to someone who watched a demo where the lady almost turned her body to hide what she was doing, then would show the finished step and say, “then do this”. Really? I often joke that I am better doing figures upside down and backwards than I am with them facing me. It is true. I often forget when working alone that I can actually look at what I am doing! If I am teaching piping, I am on the floor at the front of the table so that everyone can see around my head and hands to learn the motion.

Leave Them With a Great Story(board).
If your project allows it, have a display prepared that shows all the parts (like for a flower), or shows each major stage (like for a figurine). This way, the audience can come up and capture your presentation in one easy shot.

The single biggest piece of advice that I can give you is to believe in yourself and your role as a demonstrator. You were chosen because people want to learn from you. You are good enough. Demonstrating and sharing is vital for our industry. I attend as many Days of Sharing or cake club meetings as I can. I feel it is my duty to give back, but it also renews my love for sugarart. I feed off of the group’s energy and receive just as much as I give. It is one of the great joys of my life!


6 thoughts on “Zen and the Art of Sugarcraft Demonstrating

  1. Nicely put…but you left out the part about if all else fails, make your cake squirt water and set it on fire…lol Branson Cake Retreat Oct 2012 .. Thanks for making that a fun demo…Also , want to thank Peggy Tucker…

  2. Hi Ruth, this is very informative and helpful. I have been winging it each time doing a demo and learning something new from every one. I think I will read this a few times before my demo in Oct at the 3c’s meeting.. Thanks again Shaile

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