Presentations And Props

by Speaking Tips | February 23, 2004

Often a well selected prop significantly enriches a presentation either by setting the tone, creating a surprise or providing visual humor. Used at the beginning of a speech, it can break the ice and help connect with the audience. Generally props are easy to use, fun to plan and well received by the audience.

First of all, what is a prop? Any artifact or object such as finger puppets, colored swatches of cloth, toys, puzzles, that is integral to a presentation and that is used by the presenter to make a point. Usually it is something the speaker manipulates but it can also be something that the audience uses. Props fall into four general categories:

  • Humor or surprise
  • Metaphor
  • Illustrate a unique quality
  • Serve as the speaker's outline

The folowing four examples illiustrate each of the four categories of prop usage:

To help illustrate a point that knowledge is more effective than force in changing people's perspectives and attitudes, one speaker had a member of the audience come on stage and close their eyes. The speaker then held out a toy sword in front of the "volunteer's" face and asked them to open their eyes with the result that they jumped about a foot backwards in surprise.

One presenter fastened a variety of fresh fruit and vegetables to an overcoat. During their presentation, they donned the overcoat explaining that since they understood that fruit and vegetables were good for you, they had decided to carry some around with them. The presenter let the audience make the point that you had to consume the produce to derive any benefit from it then and countered with the thought that for the audience to benefit from the presentation material, they must similarly internalize and apply the principles and not just carry the (excellent) handouts around.

One presenter explaining the many roles their regular job entailed, brought several hats and put on a different one each time they described one of the roles.

The same presenter created colorful banners out of felt and tacked them on the wall for a long presentations. Each shape on the banner represented a subtopic within the presentation and the order they were placed on the wall illustrated the presentation outline.

Avoiding Common Pitfalls

Props, when used correctly, can be a valuable aid in achieving the aims of your presentation. Here are some questions you should ask yourself to help you avoid some common problems when using props.

Can the prop be seen or heard by the expected audience? Small items can be seen by small audiences. If the audience is large, the props need to be big enough to be seen (heard) at the back of the room. Test it out beforehand.

Where do you put or hide them until they are needed? If you leave them at the lectern or on the speaker's table someone else may think they are junk and trash them. This includes not only panelists but the facilities staff.

Does it need power? If your prop needs power (including if it has batteries or needs to be wound up), there is always the chance that it might not work. Ensure that you check for power sources and have alternatives available.

Is the prop dependent in any way upon its surroundings? Some props work well during testing but do not perform as well at the presentation site. There is a big difference between a rug on the floor and hardwood, for example, as one presenter whose presentation punch line depended on a clockwork mouse found out to their detriment.

Is it appropriate to the subject and audience? Avoid getting silly at a serious occasion. However, you have a lot of latitude with the right attitude. I was at a memorial service where the eulogist used a tennis racket, a twenty dollar bill and a bottle of wine effectively and fondly.

What will I do if the prop fails? Sometimes, despite all your preparation, things may go wrong. When this happens, its usually best to have a prepared joke or aside. The audience and you can share a good laugh and then move forward with the presentation.

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