You already know that visuals are retained in your audience’s memory significantly longer, and more effectively, than anything you say or write. That’s why PowerPoint and similar slide programs, are still the best way to illustrate a great speech.
But did you know that tactile memory is even stronger? And, even if you can’t actually touch a prop that the speaker is holding up, just knowing that you could—a form of neural mirroring—makes a talk more memorable?
This is part of the reasoning behind show-and-tell at your kid’s preschool. They certainly don’t do it because they want some excited toddler to release overfed family parakeets into the lunchroom. Montessori classrooms, for example, focus on using tactile learning (in conjunction with color and shape) to help reinforce those growing neural networks.
I’d like to prove that opening an umbrella inside is not bad luck. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
You may not think that props are for you, but with science on your side, and a little bit of practice, you can integrate a prop into your upcoming presentation and increase the impact of your message. And if you are the sort of extrovert who enjoys potentially hammy theatrics, or an introvert who might like the concreteness and security of a display, it is definitely an idea worth exploring.
What Is A Prop?
The term “prop” is short for theatrical property, and refers to “anything movable or portable on a stage or a set.” Technically, your PowerPoint presentation is a prop, but for the purposes of this blog we’re going to consider that separately, and stick to discussing three-dimensional objects.
Of course, with the right glasses, everything is three dimensional. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Props can be worn, juggled, unfurled, eaten, demonstrated, passed around, lit on fire, released into the audience, or given away as part of the most memorable prize package in the history of daytime television.
The Oprah show that launched a million memes.
They shouldn’t replace an informative, interesting, and actionable talk, but props will make a great presentation more memorable. And maybe even get the attention of that guy at the back of the room, who doesn’t seem to realize how obvious it is that he’s looking at his cell phone.
A prop can be symbolic—for instance, a coffee mug, or bags of coffee, or a stuffed toucan, to symbolize the new call center you want the company to open in San José, Costa Rica. It can be metaphorical, like the scratched-up model car that a Ford Motors executive used to show that his company had problems, but was still going strong where it counted, under the hood.
Or it can be gimmicky, like whatever you were just thinking about, and wondering if you could get away with at the big meeting.
And, if you accidentally left your laptop on the plane, just grab a random passerby’s leg brace and use it to explain to your confused audience that you “don’t need a crutch” to give a presentation.”
Get creative. Once you start thinking about finding the perfect prop for your presentation, it will almost certainly appear.
Why Use Them?
Props make your ideas stick.
If you’ve read our review of Chip and Dan Heath’s highly recommend book, Made to Stick, you’re already familiar with the concept of “Concreteness.” Basically, if we can grasp the reality of an idea, rather than just ruminate on its abstract meaning and theoretical applications, we remember it better.
Nothing is more concrete than a prop. If the crowd is intimate enough to pass the prop around, tactile memory will reinforce your point. If it can come in the form of a gift, for instance, swag that is somehow incorporated into the presentation—even another branded baseball cap that they’ll never wear—so much the better.
Depending on the props you choose, you can also employ other “principles of stickiness,” as defined by the Heath brothers. Such as the “Unexpected.”
Dima Ghawi already had the full attention of everyone in the room—talk about a gripping personal story—but if anyone was on their phone, this perfect use of a prop certainly added an impressive exclamation point.
For instance, we’re sure that no one at Bill Gates’ 2009 Ted Talk on malaria has forgotten about the buzzing swarm of bloodthirsty mosquitos he released into the upmarket crowd.
If you’ve read Made to Stick, you’ll note that the principle of “Credibility” is also on show here. The richest person in the history of ever not only still has his hair (ahem), but he’s familiar enough with mosquitoes to introduce them at the biggest intellectual gathering on the Internet. The man knows what he’s talking about.
What kind of prop would make you look like an expert in the field? That’s what you’re looking for.
What Could Possibly Go Wrong?
Presenters who love props have been known to go overboard, investing in items that can keep speaking engagements amusing and even memorable, but don’t act as a catalyst for action.
Keep it relevant. A boring copy of that book that you wrote works as much memory magic on your audience’s brain as an attention-getting batch of fireworks that has nothing to do with the presentation. Gimmicky is fine, but find some logical link between those oversized carnival sunglasses and the point you’re trying to make.
Also remember that Murphy’s Law is in full effect whenever you introduce a prop into the presentation. Which is why you need to rehearse a couple of extra times.
How many water balloons do you think Seth Godin filled up with that syringe before giving this talk?
Make a plan. How will you get your prop into the room? Will it be hidden, or displayed until you pick it up? At what point would introducing the prop make the maximum impact?
If it’s in a bag or box, practice removing the prop from its container with grace, style, and perfect timing. If you plan to pass it around, make sure that it’s neither fragile nor messy.
Is it big enough? If you’re in a one-on-one presentation, or even addressing a boardroom, a small, hand-held item should do the trick. Once the number of people in your audience hits a few dozen, you need a prop that they will be able to see clearly from the back of the room.
You want your performance to be memorable because everything went right.
After the prop has been used, where will you put it? If you display it, will it distract your audience from the rest of the speech? If you pass it around the room, how will you collect it from the last person?
And please, remember to put it down. You don’t want to be that presenter who fidgets with the prop for twenty minutes after mentioning it, absent-mindedly using it—that coffee mug from Costa Rica—as a pointer for the remainder of the PowerPoint presentation.
Just Do It
It’s a little extra work, but if you’re at all interested in using props, you should give it a try. Start small, with a familiar crowd who will forgive a possible water balloon malfunction.
If props work for you, your future audiences can look forward to more interesting, fun, and memorable presentations in the future.