How Do Props Help a Presentation?

The word “prop” comes from the term “theatrical property”, which refers to objects used by actors in a play to add realism to the story and to help advance the narrative. Anything can be used as a prop: a chair, a walking cane, a book, a painting. The list goes on and on.

Storage Room, National Theatre, Germany
Storage Room, National Theatre, Germany

Props can also be used to enhance the impact of a presentation. The well-timed use of a well-chosen prop can have a tremendous impact on a presentation.

Props can add impact to a presentation in a number of ways as set out below. (NB: Slide presentations such PowerPoint, Keynote and Prezi, are also props. However, they are such a specialized form of prop for presentations that they deserve separate consideration. You can find several related posts here.)

Props can help a presentation in several ways:

1. They can make a point concrete. If, for example, your presentation is about a product that your company has developed, having the product (or a prototype) present will make the idea more concrete than simply showing images of it on a slide.

2. They can have an emotional impact. See the two stories from Chip and Dan Health below.

3. They can be effective metaphors. In some of my workshops, I use a strip of Velcro as a metaphor for helping your audiences remember your key messages.

4. They can inject humour into a presentation.

5. They focus the audience’s attention and interest. With the exception of slide presentations, props are still not widely used in presentations today. Thus, when a speaker does bring them out, it is different. The rhythm of the presentation is changed and we are interested.

6. They are memorable. To show how effective props can be, I set out below two examples recounted by Chip and Dan Heath, in their excellent books, Made to Stick and Switch.

Example 1 – Oral Rehydration Therapy

In Made to Stick, Chip and Dan discuss the efforts of James Grant, the former Executive Director of UNICEF, to ease the plight of young children in developing countries. Each year, nearly 1.5 million young children because of dehydration caused by diarrhea.

To emphasize how inexpensive it would be to treat cases of dehydration, whenever Grant traveled to different countries, he always carried a small plastic sachet filled
with one teaspoon of salt and eight teaspoons of sugar. (The salt and sugar, when mixed with one litre of water, form the key ingredients
 for Oral Rehydration Therapy.)

When he met with presidents, prime ministers and other dignitaries of developing countries, Grant would pull out his packet of salt and sugar, hold it up to his audience and say, “Do you know that this costs less than a cup of tea and it can save hundreds of thousands of children’s lives in your country?” At this point, I hand over to the Heaths:

Grant is clearly a master of making ideas stick. He brings out a
 concrete prop and starts with an attention-grabbing unexpected contrast:
 This packet costs less than a cup of tea, but it can have a real
 impact. Prime ministers spend their time thinking about elaborate,
 complex social problems—building infrastructure, constructing hospitals,
 maintaining a healthy environment—and suddenly here’s a 
bag of salt and sugar that can save hundreds of thousands of children.

Grant’s message does sacrifice the statistics and the scientific description … but, as the director of
 UNICEF, he had enough credibility to keep people from questioning 
his facts. So Grant left the (uncontested) factual battle behind and
 fought the motivational battle. His bag of salt and sugar … 
helps the members of the audience bring their expertise to the problem.
 You can’t see it and not start brainstorming about the possibilities.

Example 2 – A Pile of Gloves

In Switch, Chip and Dan tell the story of Jon Stegner, an employee at a large manufacturing company who wanted to impress upon executives the enormous amount of money that was wasted annually because of its poor purchasing habits. Stegner believed that the company could save on the order of $1 billion over five years if the company would change its purchasing process. In order to change the process, he first needed to get the company’s executives to believe in the concept. (And for the most part, they didn’t.)

Stegner needed a compelling example of the company’s poor purchasing habits. So he enlisted the help of an intern to investigate one item that the company purchased: work gloves, which the workers in the company’s factories wore. The intern found that the company’s factories were purchasing 424 different kinds of gloves (!) from different suppliers and for different prices, even for the same pair of gloves.

From a presentation viewpoint, what Stegner did next was brilliant. He had the intern collect one sample of each of the 424 different types of gloves and tag each with the price the company paid. The gloves were then brought to a boardroom and piled up on the conference table. Stegner invited all the presidents of the company’s division presidents to come visit his “Glove Shrine”. Again I’ll hand over to the Heath brothers:

What they saw was a large expensive table, normally clean or with a few papers, now stacked high with gloves. Each of our executives stared at this display for a minute. Then each said something like, “We really buy all these different kinds of gloves?” Well, as a matter of fact, yes we do. “Really?” Yes, really. Then they walked around the table…. They could see the prices. They looked at two gloves that seemed exactly alike, yet one was marked $3.22 and the other $10.55. It’s a rare event when these people don’t have anything to say. But that day, they just stood with their mouths gaping.

The gloves exhibit soon became a traveling road show, visiting dozens of plants. The reaction was visceral: This is crazy. We’re crazy. And we’ve got to make sure this stops happening. Soon Stegner had exactly the mandate for change that he’d sought. The company changed its purchasing process and saved a great deal of money. This was exactly the happy ending everyone wanted (except, of course, for the glove salesmen who’d managed to sell the $5 gloves for $17).

Where possible (and appropriate), consider using props in your presentations. In my next post, I’ll share some ideas about how to use them effectively.

Photo courtesy of Fundus Nationaltheater Mannheim

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  1. Hi John,

    Thanks for sharing this often overlooked powerful element of any presentation.


    1. Thanks, for the comment, Max. I’ve had a quick look at your post and have saved it as a must read. I loved the video on the “swinging ball of death”. Thanks for sharing all the great links.

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