May 16, 2014

9 ways to use props for maximum impact in your presentations

I discovered this fun challenge posted by Téa Silvestre Godfrey on Facebook, to use one of these 50 bizarre stock photos to inspire a blog post title. I couldn't resist. And then I decided to go a step further and actually write the blog post inspired by the image! Thank you, woman with watermelon and gun!

Props can add humor to a presentation. They can suggest a bigger picture. They can bring shock value. And they can contribute subtext. The visual impact of a prop is its power -- your words are enhanced by props, and sometimes words are unnecessary when using props.

Here are nine ways you can incorporate props into your presentation, including some of my clients' examples that made a great impact in their presentations.

1. Take the audience on an emotional journey.

One of our Santa Barbara Fast Pitch contestants, Kim Davis of Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA), tells the story of a child who, at the age of six, went into foster care with nothing to her name but a few belongings stuffed into a black trash bag. Kim brings such a bag -- not even half full -- onto the stage. When she lifts that bag into the air, you can imagine the few items of clothing, maybe a small doll or teddy bear, and the sadness of a child without a permanent home. It paints a picture more powerful than words alone.

2. Bring the world to your audience.

I watched a speaker prepare for his presentation a few years ago by putting on layers and layers of clothing. His intention was to take his audience on a trip through history, enhancing his talk by revealing costumes from different time periods as he peeled away the layers. Sure, you could throw some images up on the screen from different time periods. Or you could actually wear the clothing and bring the shapes, textures and colors from another time right into the room where your audience can see it up close and personal.

3. Don't let your props throw you off.

If you've never worked with props before, you might be surprised to discover that things don't always go as you envisioned it. Maybe it takes too long to get your prop out of its container. Maybe the prop is too small and the audience can't see it very well. Maybe your prop makes a big mess that you hadn't anticipated. Maybe your prop is awkward to hold or display.

Always practice your presentation with your props. Don't just imagine how they're going to fit in, but actually pull them out and use them while you're rehearsing. The more you practice with your props, the more naturally they'll fit into your presentation, and you'll have a better idea of how they're going to work in front of a live audience.

4. Make sure your prop is relevant.

I got a kick out of Larry Winget's props when he delivered his keynote on the third night of Be the Change. Some were signs that he had swiped (again, you can put it up on the screen, but a real-life prop can be much more effective) demonstrating his point that "people are idiots," and one was a plunger that he suctioned to his bald forehead. Whatever outrageous prop he pulls out, it's always tied to his message. Can you say the same?

5. Keep it simple.

The simpler it is to use and show your prop, the less distracting it will be to your audience. Like your slides, the prop isn't your presentation; it merely enhances your presentation. Depending on the size of your audience and how far away they are, your prop can be as simple as a book, a magazine, a phone, a vegetable, or a shoe. There's no need for elaborate props -- unless you're, say, Gallagher. Or maybe you're a scientist and you're going to blow things up. Your prop should be able to make your point simply and without a lot of effort.

6. Keep it hidden.

Bob Williams, another Fast Pitch finalist, keeps his "Veggie Rescue" apron hidden under his shirt until the appropriate time in his pitch. Then he rips open his shirt, à la Superman, and reveals it. It's a great moment that always makes the audience laugh. Props work best when they aren't seen until the right moment. The surprise factor is especially effective when you're using your prop for humor. Sometimes it isn't possible to keep your prop hidden, and when your prop is visible, just know that your audience is going to be slightly distracted by curiosity. So if you're using a prop that can't be hidden, at least get to it sooner rather than later. Unless the anticipation is part of your intention. And then, well, let them stew!

7. Be absurd.

If you're using your prop for humor, consider going over the top. That is, if you want the audience to really get it, you might have to be a little larger than life. Here's an example: At a networking event I used to attend, one of the members of the group brought along a box of cables and cords to demonstrate the huge mess that many of us have behind our TVs and other electronics. He dumped it on the table in the middle of the group, and it was funny. But then he mentioned the multiple TV remotes we all have, and suggested that if we have trouble finding them, this one might be a good replacement. And he pulled out the biggest remote I've ever seen. It was hilarious.

Over-the-top enough to get a good laugh. A slightly bigger-than-normal remote just wouldn't have been as funny, even though we would have gotten his point.

8. Help the audience feel the feeling.

In the documentary "Fat, Sick and Nearly Dead," we watch Phil Staples, a morbidly obese truck driver, transform himself into a health-conscious and inspiring role model for other overweight people. Phil becomes so transformed emotionally and physically, he starts giving talks and sharing his story. At one point, he lines up six bowling balls to show the audience how much weight he's lost. I don't know exactly how much those bowling balls weighed, but I can tell you that the thought of wearing those on my body every day, and the thought of trying to move and walk and sleep and sit with those attached to me caused a strong emotional reaction.

I could almost FEEL that weight hanging off of me. It was more than an emotional response; it was a visceral one.

9. Be creative.

I have a lot of clients who come to me from fields like finance, insurance and engineering, who tell me that their topic is boring. They feel completely at a loss as to how to take numbers and data and charts and make their presentations interesting to their audience.

And they're making it way too hard on themselves.

Astronaut and recent International Space Station Commander Colonel Chris Hadfield made many videos from space, explaining a variety of issues astronauts face. One of his videos was about why it's difficult to taste food in space. His props were simple but fun: treats and snacks that had been sent to the ISS by his fellow Canadians.

Think outside the box a bit on what kinds of props would help your audience grasp your message. After watching curling in the Olympics, a teacher here in Santa Barbara devised a way to teach her students the science behind the sport by using Hershey's Kisses and rubber bands. She named the lesson "Curling With Kisses."

Hans Rosling is my favorite example of a speaker whose topics should be boring but aren't because of his creativity. Check out his new "ecological and recyclable version" of the laser pointer in the linked talk.

How will you use props in your next presentation? How are you using them now? Share in the comments!

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5 comments. Please add yours! :

Melanie Kissell said...

Lisa, you're one of the few (brave) people on planet earth who can take an absurd (well, actually disturbing!) photo ...
And transform its confusing visual impact into a beautiful and robust post. GREAT examples of how to use props.
Very entertaining post -- Love it! :)

Melanie Kissell said...

That "instant idea" thing happens to me all the time. We must be kindred spirits. :)

Lisa Braithwaite said...

I need more challenges like this. The more I try to think of a title, the more I overthink it.

Melanie Kissell said...

Yeah, that "over-thinking, second-guessing, pondering-over, two-days-to-decide-on-a-title" thing has got to cease! LOL!! I'll be looking out for more challenges like this, as well, Lisa. Fun! And leave it to Tea to come up with this one. She's a gem ... and a genius. :)

Lisa Braithwaite said...

She's definitely a genius!

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