How to Use Props in Presentations

As a public speaker you are essentially a performer and you have an obligation to use whatever means necessary to get your message across. So let’s experiment! The term “PROP” is actually a shortened version of the theatrical term “property” which is a word used to describe any object used by an actor in a performance. This post is all about PROPS! How can you use them in a speech? How can you choose a prop that adds, not subtracts, from your message?

To begin let’s examine some of the benefits of using a prop during a speech. Props can be used to:

  • focus attention on the speaking points you are trying to make
  • make connection with visually oriented members of your audience
  • create interest, add variety, and make your points more memorable
  • add realism to your speech (you can hold a prop, touch it, feel it etc.)
  • provide a dramatic effect (for example a hidden prop that just appears)

Case Study of Using a Prop

Bill Gates was in the middle of making a passionate plea for malaria relief in a 2009 TED Talk before an audience in Long Beach, California, when he did something shocking. He reached for a jar, unscrewed the lid, and released a cloud of mosquitos into the room.

Not only poor people should experience this.

There was some nervous laughter, but probably more than a few audience members’ hearts stopped cold for a second. Of course, the mosquitos weren’t carrying malaria, but Gates gave everyone an abrupt sense of the fear the disease still inspires. He also gave a prime example of how using the right prop can be tremendously effective.


Choosing the Correct Prop

There are many different kinds of props that you could use to your advantage in a speech. When choosing a prop it’s important to consider:

1) Whether the prop fits your chosen topic

Props must never divert from the purpose within a speech. Just like all aspects of your presentation (including words, facts, stories, and slides) you should only include props that are relevant to your topic.

2) Whether the prop is suitable for your audience

You must think before displaying shocking photographs or any material that may offend, even if it fits within the theme. Performing some analysis of the audience during your preparation should provide guidance on this.

3) Whether the prop is suitable for the venue

Can the prop be seen or heard? Small items can be seen by small audiences. If the audience is large, the props need to be big enough to be seen (or heard) at the back of the room. You should consider the setting before committing to a particular prop.

4) Whether the prop adds value to your speech

Does the prop make something that is confusing, clear? Does the prop give a visual explanation of something abstract? Being ‘cool’ isn’t sufficient justification for including a prop. The prop must enhance your message. If in doubt leave it out!


Making the Best Use of a Prop

Once you have selected your prop, you are really just getting started. Now you need to carefully plan how you will use it for best effect.

Before the Presentation
  • Decide when and how to use the prop
  • Integrate the prop seamlessly into the flow of the speech
  • Have a backup in case the prop doesn’t work (especially important with electronics)
  • Work out the kinks before the presentation. Test all props before committing to use
  • Be completely comfortable with the prop, from start to finish of the presentation
  • If using multiple props, arrange them in order so that they are easily found
During the Presentation
  • Build anticipation. Where possible, keep the prop hidden until you need it
  • When the time is right, use a little dramatic flair to unveil the prop
  • When the prop is unveiled, make sure everyone in the audience gets a good look
  • Explain the relevance of the prop. Draw connections between the prop and message
  • Demonstrate it in use. Incorporate the prop into a live demonstration
  • Put the prop away when you are finished with it to avoid a distraction
  • Invite audience members for a closer look after the speech


A Prop in Action is Magical

In 1984 a youthful Steve Jobs took to the stage to unveil the Macintosh computer. Jobs proceeded to unzip a canvas carrying case, pulling out a computer and mouse, plugging it in, and, with an especially dramatic flourish, pulling a floppy disk from inside his jacket pocket and inserting it. As the Chariots of Fire theme began to play, the screen filled with images created from MacWrite and MacPaint. The audience went crazy. Jobs had used the computer as a prop, and the effect in the room was magical.

You’ve just seen some pictures of Macintosh, now I’d like to show you Macintosh in person. All of the images that you are about to see on the large screen will be generated by what’s in that bag.

Props in a Nutshell

By considering a prop in the first place, you’re already setting yourself apart. Most of us have had to sit through more than enough uninspiring PowerPoint presentations; in that sense, at least, the bar for appearing bold and engaging your audience is pretty low.

The next time you have a speech or presentation and are looking to add a little “oomph”, you should use a prop. If you do, hopefully this post will help you to make the most of it.