A “prop” is any object you use to improve the impact of your presentation. The word’s origin traces back to the early days of the theater industry. In those days, theatrical performers usually provided their own costumes – but special items such as stage furniture and weapons were considered “company property.” With time, the term was shortened down to just “prop.” Eventually it moved into use outside the world of the stage; today it is commonly used to refer to any object used in movies, TV, speeches, presentations and even in classroom lectures.
Strictly speaking, your presentation slides are props of a sort, but we don’t usually think of them that way. We’re generally talking about objects that illustrate what we’re talking about, or add dramatic or engaging impact.
Now, you’ve probably been subjected to a presentation or two where the speaker brought out a prop that just came off as gimmickry, irrelevant, overly “cutesie” or just plain distracting. So how do you decide whether a prop will be an asset to your presentation? To help answer that question (and at the risk of seeming gimmicky!) we’ve come up with a little memory aid: CURE.
Screenshot: My Stroke of Insight
In Jill Bolte Taylor’s popular “My Stroke of Insight” TED talk, she brought a real human brain on stage. Before explaining the differences between the functions of the brain’s left and right hemispheres in relation to her own stroke, she showed her audience what a brain looks like, how it is divided and how a structure called the corpus callosum connects the two sides. The audience might have heard about something about cerebral hemispheres before attending the talk, but most people outside medical circles would probably never seen an actual brain. Even photos and drawings don’t quite compare to seeing the real thing. So Dr. Taylor’s prop acted as a concrete visual aid. By holding up the brain in front of the audience and pointing out its structure and parts, she added considerable reality to a topic that may have seemed mysterious or confusing to many of her listeners.
Screenshot: Mosquitos, Malaria and Education
Who would ever have expected a speaker to use live insects as props? NOBODY – until Microsoft founder and philanthropist Bill Gates brought a small jar of mosquitoes and released them during his 2009 TED talk, Mosquitos, Malaria and Education. His unexpected prop set the audience to laughing, and created an effective speaker-audience connection. (By the way, after releasing the bugs, Gates admitted they were safe – none were carrying malaria.)
The excerpt below shows exactly how Mr. Gates introduced his prop. Notice the transition from a statement of serious fact to the revelation of an unanticipated prop.
And so this leads to the paradox that because the disease is only in the poorer countries, it doesn’t get much investment. For example, there’s more money put into baldness drugs than into malaria. Now, baldness – it’s a terrible thing. And rich men are afflicted. And so that’s why that priority has been set.
But malaria … even the million deaths a year caused by malaria greatly understate its impact. Over 200 million people at any one time are suffering from it. It means that you can’t get the economies in these areas going because it just holds things back so much. Now, malaria is of course transmitted by mosquitos. I brought some here, just so you could experience this. We’ll let those roam around the auditorium a little bit. There’s no reason only poor people should have the experience.
Screenshot: Apple Event, 2008
Any prop you choose must be relevant – appropriate to your presentation topic. Otherwise it will simply be a distraction and source of confusion. If you’re talking about politics, don’t bring out a yoga mat! Not unless you’re somehow using it to illustrate a pertinent point.
In 2008, the late Steve Jobs introduced the MacBook Air as the world’s thinnest notebook. On the big screen behind him, he displayed a photo of an ordinary office envelope, and claimed the new device would fit inside it. The audience laughed and applauded at this – but their applause and laughter doubled (at least) when Jobs walked over to the podium, picked up the same envelope shown on the screen, and slid out his latest creation. That’s relevant prop use at its best.
Screenshot: I See Something
Long after your presentation is over, your audience will remember you by how you made them feel – how you affected their emotions. Your presentation’s emotional impact and memorability can be heightened considerably by clever use of a prop.
As a great example of an emotional prop, let’s consider 2014 World Champion of Public Speaking Dananjaya Hettiarachchi and his “I See Something” speech. He opened his talk by drawing a red rose from his front suit pocket. He examined it, smelled it, and then stated that like a rose, we are all special. As he explained that it’s difficult to acknowledge our unique traits when we feel down and broken, he plucked a few petals, snapped the stem, and tossed the rose’s broken remains into a trash can sitting nearby on the stage. At the close of his speech, he picked the rose out of the can as he summarized his takeaway message: The people who love you will reach into the trash can and help you become whole again. These simple actions created a profound emotional impact, and a lasting memory for his listeners.
Prop Use Preparation
Here are some questions to ask yourself before bringing a prop on stage:
- How will I use it? Decide on the exact point to bring out your prop, exactly what you’ll do with it and what you’ll say, and what you’ll do with it when you’ve made your point.
- Will the people at the back of the room be able to see it? If you’re using a small prop in a big hall, those at the back may not be able to see it. In such a case, you may have to include a quick description as part of your talk, at the point where you produce the prop. If there will be a videographer present, you may be able to arrange for him to focus on the prop as you produce it, so it can be seen on the big screen. Similarly, you could show a slide of the prop as you bring it out, to make sure all can see it clearly.
- What’s my backup plan if the prop doesn’t work as expected? If you bring out your prop but something unexpected happens (it doesn’t function as expected, for example – or the audience doesn’t seem to get the point) you’ll be very glad if you’ve worked out a Plan B in advance, so you can smoothly move forward. Panic or freezing up don’t help your stage presence!
Finally, keep in mind that using a prop isn’t always the smartest move. If you’re not sure your chosen prop really adds value to your talk, you might want to leave it out in favor of some high-value slides.
Can you think of other presentations in which the speaker used a memorable prop? In the comment section below, tell us how the object(s) created a positive effect on the audience.