It’s hard to forget Amy Tan revealing a tiny dog in her bag at the end of her TED Talk, “Where Does Creativity Hide?” Sometimes a presentation can be strengthened by a prop, even a living one, while other times props can detract from the message and remind the audience of a creepy puppet show. So, when is the right time to use a prop?

What Response Are You Looking For?

The first question you should ask yourself is: why would I use a prop? Is it to make people laugh? To deepen their understanding of the topic? If you are looking for a particular response, be sure that it’s still relevant to the tone and content of your presentation. To see what we mean by “relevant,” check out Daniel Kraft’s use of multiple props in his TED Talk, “The Better Way to Harvest Bone Marrow.” Before you decide on what prop to use, write down its purpose and compare it to your existing content outline. Does it add value? If not, don’t use it.

Will Other People Be Presenting?

If you are presenting with a series of speakers, you might consider using a prop to be more memorable. No one is going to forget Jill Bolte Taylor’s TED Talk, “Stroke of Insight;” she brought real human brain onto the stage to supplement her talk. The audience called their moms after the conference and probably said something like, “I watched fifteen great speeches and one person brought a brain!”

Can The Audience See It (Without Passing It Around)?

If you are going to use a prop that can be easily carried, the ideal audience size is 15-30 people. Don’t bother pausing your presentation to pass around an item that the audience can see, and consider using something larger/more obvious if the group is over 30. Or don’t use anything at all; the bigger the group, the less likely they will engage with an object they can’t view without binoculars.

To Give or Not to Give?

Handouts or items for the audience members could also be used as props to enhance the message. However, make sure that the objects have already been distributed before the speech, don’t make a lot of noise, and won’t overly distract the audience while you are talking. One of the strangest (and most creative) examples of a “give away” happened when Bill Gates released live mosquitos during his TED Talk, “Mosquitos, Malaria, and Education.” It was humorous, relevant to the message, and not enough mosquitos to distract the crowd.

Props can be unexpected, memorable, and a concrete way to support your presentation. However, they should also be a value-add to your message. Be sure to do a little soul-searching before you decide to bring a live crocodile, or anything else, to your next presentation.

Question: Would using a prop enhance your presentation’s message?

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