For decades, popular opinion pegged Bill Gates as a mediocre presenter.
That all changed on February 5, 2009, when he unleashed one of the most memorable props ever on his audience: live mosquitos.
In this article, we discuss:
- key benefits of props,
- how to choose a prop, and
- how to use it effectively in a speech.
Bill Gates and the Mosquitos Prop
About a third of the way through his TED talk titled Mosquitos, Malaria, and Education, Gates did the unthinkable. He lifted up a glass jar, and let mosquitos loose in the lecture hall, saying:
Now, malaria is of course transmitted by mosquitos. I brought some here, just so you could experience this. We’ll let those roam around the auditorium a little bit. (Laughter) There’s no reason only poor people should have the experience. (Laughter) (Applause) Those mosquitos are not infected.
His prop was perfect: tightly related to his core message, concrete (not abstract), unexpected, humorous, and entirely memorable.
While a single prop did not transform him from a mediocre presenter to a dynamic presenter in an instant, there’s no question that his presentation benefited greatly from this inspired prop.
Six Key Benefits of Speech Props
Appropriate props offer a wealth of benefits to your presentation, including:
- Props are concrete.
By its nature, a speech is an abstract thing. An audience gathers to listen to a speaker talk about something that isn’t in the room: a process, a belief, an event, an idea. But a prop is not abstract. You can touch it. You can hold it. You can feel it. This adds significant realism to your speech.
- Props are unexpected.
Using props in a presentation is a lost art. As presenters have become more dependent on digital slides, the analog prop has become less common. If you use one in your presentation, you will stand out.
- Props can be emotional.
Props are visual: they have a shape, a size, and color. The visual nature of props helps to evoke memories and trigger emotions, including laughter.
- Props can facilitate drama.
Sure, props can just sit on a table and be pointed to. But, you might also choose to create drama or suspense with a hidden prop. Audiences love surprises.
- Props require preparation.
Having a prop demonstrates to your audience that you are definitely not “winging it.” You’ve made an extra effort to provide value for them.
- Props are memorable.
For all the reasons above, props tend to be quite memorable. Your audience may not remember an individual sentence spoken or slide shown, but they will likely remember the prop you surprised them with.
How to Choose a Speech Prop
Your options for speech props are nearly infinite, limited only by practical considerations: Will it fit in the room? Can you transport it there? etc.
Here’s a brief checklist to work through when considering your prop options:
- Is the prop linked to your message, or is the prop unrelated to your speech topic?
Just like all aspects of your presentation (including words, facts, stories, and slides), you should only include props that are relevant to your topic.
- Could the prop be considered offensive by members of the audience?
Audience analysis should provide guidance. If in doubt, leave it out.
- Will you use it, wear it, or simply show it?
Some props are only for looking at, but the best props are often those which you can do something with.
- Will you bring in the actual thing you are talking about? Or, will you bring in a model or metaphor for that thing?
For example, you might bring in a globe as a prop if talking about flights that cross over polar areas on the earth.
- Is the prop large enough to be seen?
Can its important features be seen by the audience? Can the person in the back row of the audience see enough detail?
- Is the prop small enough to be handled and manipulated?
Will it be too cumbersome?
- And the most important question… does the prop add value to your presentation?
If you are unsure, then the prop should probably be left out. Being “really cool” isn’t enough. The prop must enhance your message.
How to Use a Speech Prop
Once you have selected your prop, your job is just beginning. Just as you have to carefully construct a speech and rehearse it, you need to carefully plan how you will use the prop and include it in your rehearsal.
Before using the prop
- Make a plan.
Decide when and how you will use the prop in your presentation. It’s unwise to have the mindset “Oh, I’m doing a speech on topic X, and this prop would be cool. I’ll bring it along with me…” Instead, consider questions like the following:
- When will you begin using the prop?
- Will you be simply holding it up?
- Will you be throwing it? Rolling it? Wearing it?
- Will you be doing a demonstration with it?
- Will you be pointing out things on the prop as you continue to talk?
- Will you feature the prop for 10 seconds or 10 minutes?
- When will you stop using the prop?
- Rehearse thoroughly.
I’ve seen speakers unable to get the prop out of the bag/box. I’ve seen speakers drop their prop when trying to show it. I’ve seen speakers struggle to get the prop to do something for several minutes. Don’t let this happen to you. Rehearse and work out the kinks before your presentation.
- Consider “smuggling” your prop into the room.
If you plan to build suspense or surprise your audience, you may wish to “smuggle” the prop into the room in a bag or box. If this is the case, make sure you can easily locate it when needed.
Using the prop
- Build anticipation.
If you are using your prop as a surprise element, consider building up anticipation with your audience. You might gesture towards the hidden prop, hint at what it is, or even play a guessing game with your audience. When the time is right, use a little dramatic flair to unveil it.
- Make it easy to see.
Depending how large the prop is, you may need to hold it up high for everyone to see. Hold it steady. Show the different sides (length, width, height). Give everyone a good look. If the room is large, you may need to walk with it to different areas in the room. Don’t rush it. Also, consider how the room lighting will impact the visibility of your prop.
- Explain the relevance of your prop.
Don’t assume that your audience will immediately understand what you are showing them. Highlight the important components (and point to them, if necessary). Explain its origin. Draw the connections between this prop and your speech message.
- Demonstrate it in use.
If your prop can (safely) be used, consider incorporating it into a live demonstration. See How to Master the Demonstration Speech for more great tips.
After using the prop
- Put the prop away again.
Once you are done showing and talking about your prop, put it away, preferably out of sight and out of your reach. This accomplishes two things:  Returns the audience’s attention back to you, and  Prevents you from fidgeting with the prop. I’ve seen many props fondled for the remainder of the speech without any purpose. (This was likely an unconscious, nervous behavior by the speaker.)
- Think hard before “passing it around.”
Many speakers pass props around the room as an opportunity for audience members to see it close-up. This is rarely necessary and sometimes detrimental.
As your prop is passed from one audience member to the next, eyeballs and attention are away from you — not good. Even if you do this at the end of your presentation, it may draw attention away from the next speaker. A fragile prop may also be damaged accidentally.
Pass your prop around only if the experience of holding the prop is essential for your presentation.
- Invite audience members for a closer look after your speech (or at an event break).
As an alternative to passing the item around, invite interested audience members for a closer look later. This treats it more like a “bonus opportunity” rather than a forced, obligatory task.
Can you help with a future article?
As I was writing this article, a colleague suggested a follow-up article giving examples of speech props as a means to highlight the variety which is possible.
I’d love to hear from you. Please share memorable props that you have used, or which you have seen used by other speakers. For each, give a very brief context of how the prop enhanced the speech.