Many experts agree: one of the best ways to capture the attention of your audience is by using props in presentations.
Bill Gates released live mosquitoes in the auditorium when he talked about malaria in his famous TED Talk. And boy, did he get the attention of every single audience member!
How to Use Props in Presentations
Choose a prop that links to your message
Your prop has to be relevant. Using a prop just for the sake of using it, even if it is a novelty item, will not be as powerful as using a prop that directly supports your message.
Practice using your prop so it looks natural
Using a prop adds a level of complexity to your presentation. Complexity adds risk. Before you use a prop, practice when and how to use it in your presentation. You want to appear natural when you demonstrate your key message with a prop.
Hide your prop until you need it
If your prop is small enough, hide it in your pocket or behind the podium. If it is big, try to hide it behind the curtain or off stage. Otherwise, your audience might pay more attention to your prop, trying to figure out what you will do with it, than to you and your talk. Hiding the prop until needed will also increase the surprise factor once you reveal it.
Build up anticipation when you bring out your prop
When you finally bring out your prop, build up the anticipation. Don’t immediately launch into using it, but lead up to it. Create a moment of suspense. You might do this with questions or talking briefly about what you are going to demonstrate with your prop.
In the video below, Caroline Goyder shows how to build up to the moment of revealing a prop. If you are impatient, skip forward to 3:47, when she starts to talk about the hidden object behind her.
She expertly builds up to the moment of uncovering it: “Now you might be wondering what this object is. And what this object is, here, is what George made. But when you ask a maker to make a chest of drawers, they don’t always do what you think they’re going to do. Do you want to see what he did?”
She follows this introduction with a pause…and then reveals the chest. When the audience sees what it is, laughter fills the room. Brilliant!
Put away your prop when you have finished using it
When you are done with your prop, put it away — for the same reason you should keep it hidden until you need it: you don’t want to distract your audience. If they still see your prop, they will be focused less on your message than when you signal to them that you are done with it by putting it away.
The Benefits of Using Props in Presentations
Props entertain your audience
Audiences are entertained by props. It breaks up your presentation and gives your audience something else to process than just your words and slides.
Props add clarity to your message
The reason you use a prop is to demonstrate what you are talking about. You are giving your audience a visual representation of what you are talking about.
Props make your message memorable
People cannot remember everything you cover in a presentation. By using a prop to highlight your most important talking point, you increase the chance that your message sticks.
The Best Prop I Ever Used in a Presentation
Starting in the early 1990’s I used to sell some of the first tablet computers. We called them pen-based computers back then.
One of these devices was called the Symbol PPT 4600, designed for specific industrial applications. It was a very rugged device that survived a drop of 2 meters (6.6 foot) with ease.
I had a blast demoing this particular product, as it allowed for a great show during my presentations. After briefly covering some of the product’s features, I would lift it over my head and then drop it onto the stage. The gasps I got were quite amusing to me. I was confident that the device survived. In hundreds of demos, the device always survived the drop and was fully functional after I picked it up from the floor.
Dropping an expensive device without blinking always got my audience’s undivided attention, which I leveraged by following up with a very special prop I had in my pocket. Two small rubber balls, also known as Happy & Sad Balls. They looked the same and had the same temperature, weight, and density. But they behaved quite differently when I dropped them.
Even Bill Nye seems to enjoy these balls. Here is a video of “the science guy” demonstrating them:
As you can see in the video above, one of these balls bounces as you would expect from a rubber ball – the other just plonks down and sits there.
I used this prop to explain why devices normally break when being dropped…and how this device was different because of the material used in strategic locations throughout the device. Granted, the material we used was different, but the principles of kinetic energy absorption applied all the same. It was a great way for the audience to understand what made our device so different, and to remember it.