The word ‘prop’ has something of an ambiguous connotation. It’s redolent of childhood plays and magic tricks, bunnies and cardboard cutouts. There aren’t many times in adulthood when our minds turn to the possibility of using props, unless you have some kind of job in theatre, but we should give it a moment of consideration when preparing a presentation. Sometimes it’s intuitive to use a prop; think Steve Jobs and Apple. People want to see what new, awesome product Apple is unveiling, and they want the real thing, not a JPG on a slide. So let’s harness our inner thespian, and discuss ways to use props effectively in presentation.

Create Clarity

First things first: Ideas are most effectively received and have the greatest chance of being remembered when they are grounded in concreteness rather than abstraction. Much of the power inherent in an idea lies in its dissemination– present ideas as visually as possible to create a clear image in the audience’s mind.

In Made to Stick, the Heath brothers argue that concreteness “helps us understand– it helps us construct higher, more abstract insights on the building blocks of our existing knowledge and perceptions.” They write that concrete ideas are easier to remember, and nothing lends concreteness to ideas more obviously than the use of props.

A prop is by definition something tangible that the presenter interacts with in front of the audience, and the only compelling reason to use one is if its presence lends more concreteness to your presentation. Does the prop make something clear that is confusing? Does the prop give a visual explanation of something abstract? Does the prop, on the whole, make your presentation more grounded in reality rather than abstraction? Use it only if you answered yes to those three questions. Don’t use a prop superfluously, just to add something extra. Make sure it has an acknowledged, beneficial place in your presentation.

Make it Memorable

If your prop passed the concreteness test with flying colors, it’s time to make some memories. Props can create some of the most dynamic, memorable moments in a presentation. Audiences are very likely to remember the prop you used, and what you did with it, so make it count. Ensure that your prop has a dynamic, unforgettable purpose in your presentation. If there’s a chance it’s going to fall flat with the audience, or its purpose is not convincing enough to be noticed, don’t use it.

Consider ways a prop can strengthen and intensify your presentation. If you’re speaking about a device, it’s fitting to show the audience the device at the end of your spiel. If you’re reporting a statistic, it’s very powerful to make the stat visual with a prop. Be creative! Have fun with it.

Incite Conversation

In Made to Stick, the Heath Brothers relate the story of Jerry Kaplan, who arrived rather disheveled and unprepared to a presentation at the venerable Silicon Valley firm Kleiner Perkins. This was the 80s and he was pitching a new kind of computer device, something along the lines of a BlackBerry. When the partners started to look uninterested and distracted, Kaplan declared, “I am holding a model of the future of computing right here in my hand” and threw down his maroon portfolio onto the table. Immediately, discussion commenced about the possibilities of this here computing device, also known as a basic maroon portfolio.

Kaplan’s shrewd idea to use his portfolio as a prop was immensely effective because it made his seemingly far-fetched idea of a ‘new computing device’ a concrete reality. The partners could visualize that portfolio as a device (Would it be that size? Could it fit all of that memory? How would it work?). It made Kaplan’s idea tangible and visual. And one of the best parts about using that prop was how it incited conversation in the audience. Its presence encouraged discussion, thoughtfulness and reflection.

So after you’ve made sure that your prop offers clarity in the face of abstraction and you’ve found a memorable way to present it, take a page from Kaplan and see how you can use it to encourage conversation and reflection in your audience.

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