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Using props in your presentation

Remember “Show and Tell” in grade school? It was one of my favorite activities. All the silly things we brought to class: rocks, puppies, pictures, food. One time, I brought the pelt of an opossum that my older brother had skinned the weekend before. My 15 minutes of fame!

Surprise! “Show and Tell” still lives! Although in a business setting, it’s now called “Demonstrate and Elaborate.” When it comes to presentations, its means using props to help illustrate your topic. That’s what this post is about: How to use props in your presentation for increased audience engagement and understanding.

First, we’ll discuss what props bring to your presentation—the why of props. Then I’ll share some tips on effectively using props in your presentation—the how of props. When you’re done with this post, I hope you will feel encouraged to start using props in your presentations.

Ready? Let’s go.

Why props might be a good addition to your presentation

What is a “prop,” anyway? The word “prop” is short for “property.” It’s a theatrical term to describe inanimate objects that are used during a play or a film production. Props can be anything from lightsabers to martini glasses to food and furniture. While props come in different forms, they serve a common purpose: Props help actors tell a story.

If a film or a play relies on props to help set the scene, engage the audience and tell a compelling story, it makes sense that using props can help your presentation, as well.

Let me start with a disclaimer: Not every presentation has to have a prop. However, sometimes they make sense and can be incredibly powerful in presenting your message.

Here are some reasons you might want to think about adding a prop or two to your presentation:

  • Props energize your presentation. Too often, presentations are just one PowerPoint slide after another—on and on and on. Facts and data (accompanied only by vocals and flat visuals) can be overwhelming and, at a certain point, people just stop paying attention. However, bringing in a prop to “demonstrate and elaborate” your point can focus attention and enhance the energy in your presentation. As a kid, I loved going to the zoo. Whenever a zoologist came out to speak, they’d always bring out an animal which immediately grabbed my attention. Whether your audience is 6 or 60, it still works today.

  • Props help explain complex subjects. If you are presenting on a particularly detailed or scientific subject, props can provide visual support to help your audience grasp these complex ideas. Something as simple as drawing on a flipchart can help your audience see relationships or identify individual pieces of a multi-faceted concept. For example, in her TED Talk My Stroke of Insight, brain researcher Jill Bolte Taylor talks about how she recovered from a stroke. To strike home her points, she pulled out a brain and spinal cord—yes, an actual brain and spinal cord!—so the audience could see what she was referring to.

  • Props focus the audience’s attention. A prop gives the audience something concrete to look at when discussing ambiguous or abstract subjects. For example, Kenny Nguyen made a TED Talk titled The Art of Saying No.” In the talk, he referred to the “sword of yes” and the “shield of no.” So, yes, you guessed it, Kenny pulled out an actual sword and shield.

  • Props can inject humor into a presentation. Humor is a great way to break the ice with your audience, to keep your listeners interested, and to ensure your presentation is memorable. Satirist Tom Rielly delivered a wicked parody of the 2006 TED conference in his TED Talk A Sharp Intake of Death, making use of a number of props, including a “Scream Bag” that one can scream into during a frustrating presentation so as not to disturb the people around oneself.

  • Props can bring emotional impact to a presentation Susan Can wanted to make real to her audience her childhood love of books in her TED Talk The Power of Introverts. She told how she would bring a full suitcase of books to camp every summer. So, she walked out with a suitcase—full of books! You could tell that, to her, these books were treasured objects.

Tips for using props

Now that you understand a bit more about why props can be helpful for your next presentation, let’s look at how to use props effectively. Here are some things to keep in mind when you’re considering whether to add a particular prop to a presentation:

  • Make sure the prop is relevant to your message. Yes, this sounds over-obvious, but not everyone abides by this rule. I’ve seen presenters pull out off-the-wall props—probably to shock the audience. If a prop doesn’t contribute to the objective of your presentation, don’t use it. A prop shouldn’t divert from the purpose of your talk.

  • Make sure the audience can see the prop. If you’re presenting in a meeting room, then just about any prop will be visible. However, the larger the venue, the more care you make take to make sure everyone can see the prop you are using. If your audience can’t see it, it’s going to frustrate them and divert attention from the point you’re trying to illustrate.

  • Make sure the prop works. Ambitious presenters will use complicated props, not taking into account that so much can go wrong. Just think what would happen at a product reveal when you can’t get the product to turn on! A good rule of thumb: Practice ahead of time to ensure your prop will work AND always have a backup plan in case disaster strikes.

  • If possible, keep the prop hidden until you need it. Obviously, this doesn’t work if your prop is a Sherman Tank. But with smaller props revealing it at just the right time can have a big impact. By doing this, you make sure the prop doesn’t distract the audience needlessly. Also, a dramatic reveal at just the right time has more oomph to it.

Wrapping Up

For a presentation to have lasting success, it must be remembered. When it comes to making your presentation memorable don’t forget the power of “Show and Tell.” Leverage effective props to energize your presentation, explain complex subjects, and inject emotional impact. Just make sure when using a prop that it’s appropriate to your message, your audience can see it and it works as you need it to. Have fun!

Want to learn more Presentation Skills?

There’s much that goes into making a memorable presentation and we invite you to check out our leadership workshop, The Art of Skilled Presentations where we explore mind, body, and engagement skills to make you a more effective presenter.

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Marie Tjernlund is the Co-founder and President of NobleEdge Consulting. As an accomplished executive coach, certified Conflict Dynamics Profile® facilitator, and a professional speaker and performer, Marie brings her positive energy and enthusiasm to clients around the world. You can contact her at


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