23 Props: It is More Than Just Setting Stuff on a Table

Lynn Meade

 

A man demonstrating cooking by dumping vegetables into a pan.
“Cooking Demo with Chef Maurice”
There are many types of presentation aids to help your audience understand your message. Learning to speak while working with a prop can be challenging. The speaker must maintain a connection with the audience visually while working with an object. Used well, a prop can help engage your audience and can help them understand.
When thinking about using a prop, the most important thing you should consider is “Does my prop add value to my speech?” In this chapter, I will talk about the types of props, why you should use props, and then give you some best practices for using props. Most of this chapter is dedicated to showing you creative ways to use props. 

Why Use Props?

    • To engage the audience
    • To focus attention
    • To make your message more memorable
    • To retain the audience’s attention
    • To emotionally impact the audience
    • To break away from using slides
    • To help the audience understand
    • To demonstrate how to do things

Best Practices on How to Use Props

Select your props with care.

    • Ensure they are large enough to be seen.
    •  Proofread/check for errors (often better to get a different set of eyes on them as you may gloss over the errors).
    • Make sure your prop is not offensive.
    • Consider how you will carry your prop to and from the speaking venue.
    • Make sure your prop is not offensive.
    • Consider set-up and take-down time (if working with food, glue, or other messy items, bring wipes and a trash bag).

Practice with your props.

    • Work to seamlessly integrate the prop (it shouldn’t look like someone told you that you had to use a prop).
    • Be able to smoothly show and put away your prop.
    • Have a plan for how to hide the prop until you need it.
    • Make eye contact with your audience while working with your prop.
    • Place your prop where you can easily reach it.
    • In demonstration speeches, make sure everything is opened (it is hard to open cream cheese while speaking).
    • If working with food, glue, or other messy items, bring wipes and a trash bag.
    • Put the prop away after using it.

Have a backup plan in case the prop does not work.

    • Bring tape in case you have to hang something up.
    • Have whiteboard markers in case you need to write on the board.
    • Practice with a clicker and your prop so you know how to work them together.

Additional Thoughts on Props

    • Include reminders on your notecards for when to use the prop.
    • If your prop involves a volunteer, make sure they know what is expected.
    • Do not pass items around for the audience to see, it is too distracting.

Types of Props

 


How and Why to Use Props

Props Enhance Your Message

Notice how Jill Bolte Taylor uses an actual human brain to enhance understanding and to engage the audience.

Time to watch: 2:20-4:00

Props Help Demonstrate How Something Works

It can be difficult to envision how things work with only an explanation. In this speech, Michael Pritchard not only tells us, but he also demonstrates for us how the water filter works. He starts by taking dirty water and makes it even dirtier. The dirty water causes some people to have a physical reaction. This makes it even more memorable when he finally cleans the water and then hands it to someone to drink.

Time to watch: 3:00-5:30

Props Can Be Used to Prove a Point

When writing this chapter on props, I asked public speaking teachers to give me their best examples of how students used props effectively and Mike Fleming shared this story.
When I first began teaching, I had to shadow someone who was currently teaching. One Saturday morning, one of the students had a large, 50-pound sack of dry dog food. When called, she went up, and put the bag on the corner of the desk, went around it, and began her speech. She started talking about her wedding. She explained how she was a newlywed. She told of the importance, to her, of fitting into her wedding dress, and of all she had gone through to make that happen. She spoke of having been chubby her entire life, etc. At the very end of her speech, after telling us that she had accomplished her goal, and had fit into her dress, she stepped around the desk, put her arm around the bag of dog food, hoisted it onto her hip, and told us that if she had stepped onto a scale just then, the scale would have showed what she had weighed, at the start of her journey. She put the bag back on the desk and said, “But not anymore!   Mike Fleming.
Speaker Kenny Nguyen uses the prop of a sword and a shield to anchor his message.
Watch from 8.59 to the end. He doesn’t use the props right away but I wanted you to see the context so I backed up the video a little. Notice how he has the prop out of the way until he needs it to solidify his point.

Props Can Carry the Theme

In this graduation speech, Valedictorian Carl Aquino uses a Rubik’s cube to talk about high school.  Watch how he uses it to show the difference between high school and college.

Props Can Be Used to Teach Complex Concepts

Dan Burns teaches other teachers how to demonstrate spacetime warping. Does this help you understand the scientific principles? I know I learned a lot from this. Notice how he talks as he demonstrates. He could improve by having some of these objects a little closer so there isn’t an awkward pause as he gets his balls.

Watch from the beginning

You Can Be the Prop

Lizzy Velasquez talks about a syndrome she has. In this speech, she is the prop. She draws attention to her eyes and then highlights the great things about her eyes.

Time to watch: 0-2:00

Props Can Help Tell a Story

Aimee Mullins engages the audience by telling a story of how children reacted to seeing all her prosthetic legs. As we look at the props on the stage, we can better imagine the reactions of the children.

Time to watch: 0-2:00

Props Can Enhance Persuasion

Watch as Mark Scarpitti illustrates the benefits of no-till soil. Notice how he engages his audience by asking them questions as he demonstrates; it really helps engage his audience. He has all of his props set up before he begins and they are set out in a way that they are easy to see. He wisely uses volunteers which further engages the group. By showing instead of just telling, he makes a convincing case for no till-soil.

Time to watch: 21- 4:15

Your Product Can Be Your Prop

Many of you will do a product demonstration as part of your job. In this video, Elon Musk, with the help of an assistant, illustrates the Cybertruck’s load mode.

Time to watch: 12:00-13:45

Props Can Illustrate Complex Concepts

Frances Chan, Christian Pastor, illustrates the concept of “eternity” to a church audience with, of all things, a rope.

Time to watch: 0-2:00

Props to Help the Audience Relate to Numbers and Think Deeply About a Concept

Jamie Oliver is not only passionate about food, he is passionate about teaching people to eat healthier. Watch as he illustrates how much sugar is in milk. As you watch the video, notice how he has a volunteer bring his prop on the stage at just the right time. As he dumps one cup at a time on the floor, we begin to see the problem. Finally, when he dumps the wheelbarrow of sugar on the floor and then dramatically tosses it in the air, we begin to sense the urgency of the problem.

Time to Watch: 12:00-14:00

Props Can Engage the Audience’s Attention

Andrea Schiefelbein uses humor and some creative poster usage at a High School National Speech and Debate Championship. Notice how she creatively uses the poster board in layers. Pay attention to how she has just plain black poster board when she doesn’t need us to see a picture. Finally, watch as she uses the genderbread man to draw us and she causes us to think as we watch her add pieces to the poster.

Watch from 0-4:00

Posters Can Be Used Instead of Slides to Draw the Audience’s Attention

Dave Lieber, a columnist for The Dallas Morning News, talks about trying to adapt to Texas culture while teaching the audience how to tell the story. Notice how effective his poster is as opposed to using a slide show. Ask yourself, would it have been as engaging if he would have shown us a slide of the dog?

Time to Watch: 12:50-14:00

Props Can Be Used With Slides to Draw the Audience’s Attention

Daniel Kraft demonstrates the Marrow Minor. He uses four props, slides, and a video in four minutes. Watch as he masterfully negotiates all his visuals while maintaining a conversational tone with the audience.

 

Check Out This Article on How Politicians Use Props

Business Insider Looked at 10 Wild Props Used by Congressional Members that I thought you would enjoy. (My personal favorite is Reagan riding a velociraptor–I included it here for your viewing pleasure) Watch this short video clip as Republican Senator Mike Lee makes fun of the Green New Deal using Reagan on a dinosaur, Star Wars, and Sharknado.

 

MIT Professor Patrick Winston gives a lecture on how to use props. He goes into detail about why he thinks props work. Watch for yourself, the answer might surprise you.  Watch from 13 to 24 minutes.

 

Key Takeaways

Remember This!

  • Props can help the audience pay attention, understand concepts, and remember your information.
  • Props should enhance your message.
  • The prop should be large enough to see.
  • Practice with your props to seamlessly integrate them into your speech.

Please share your feedback, suggestions, corrections, and ideas.

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Looking for More Information?

I didn’t want to overwhelm you with too many examples when you read the chapter, so I included some of the extra video clips, examples, and activities in a separate chapter.

Presentation Aids: Activities and Resources


Editorial note:  For copyright considerations, I have given you speech samples in their entirety.  Showing only short clips violates the copyright privileges of those who graciously posted the speech videos. I have given you start and stop times to see the prop and how it is used. It will take you about 20 minutes to watch all the clips. Warning: these are interesting videos and it will be hard to watch only the suggested segment. 

References

Aquino, C. (2011). The Valedictorian Speech that will change your life. [Video] YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lCN6FjqDcHg Standard YouTube License.

Armour, C. Schneid, S.D., Brandl, K. (2016). Writing on the board as students’ preferred teaching modality in a physiology course. Physiology. https://doi.org/10.1152/advan.00130.2015

Burns, D. (2012). Gravity visualized. [Video] YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MTY1Kje0yLg Standard YouTube License.

Chan, F. (2010). Frances Chan-Rope illustration.[Video] YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=86dsfBbZfWs Standard YouTube License.

Cnet. (2019). Watch Elon Musk announce the Tesla Cybertruck in 14 minutes. [Video] YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=464puoD09dM  Standard YouTube License.

Dlugan, A. (2013). How to choose and use speech props: A speaker’s guide. http://sixminutes.dlugan.com/speech-props/  Standard YouTube License. 

Gates, B. (2013). Mosquitos, malaria, and education. Ted. [Video] YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZLkbWUNQbgk  Standard YouTube License.

Kraft, S. (2009). A better way to harvest bone marrow. [Video] YouTube. https://www.ted.com/talks/daniel_kraft_a_better_way_to_harvest_bone_marrow?utm_campaign=tedspread&utm_medium=referral&utm_source=tedcomshare  Standard YouTube License.

Lieber, D. (2013). The power of storytelling to change the world. Ted. [Video] YouTube. https://youtu.be/6Bo3dpVb5jw  Standard YouTube License.

Lineham, D. 9n.d.). How to use props in presentations. https://davelinehan.com/how-to-use-props-in-presentations/

Mullins, A. (2009). My 12 pair of legs. Ted. [Video] YouTube. https://www.ted.com/talks/aimee_mullins_my_12_pairs_of_legs?utm_campaign=tedspread&utm_medium=referral&utm_source=tedcomshare  Standard YouTube License.

Nguyen, K. (2013). The art of saying no: Kenny Nguyen at TEDxLSU. [Video] YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FtPRrn5nwAo&t=563s Standard YouTube License.

Oliver, J. (2010). Teach every child about food. Ted.  [Video] YouTube. https://www.ted.com/talks/jamie_oliver_teach_every_child_about_food?language=en  Standard YouTube License.

Pritchard, M. (2009). [Video] YouTube. How to make filthy water drinkable. Ted. https://www.ted.com/talks/michael_pritchard_how_to_make_filthy_water_drinkable?utm_campaign=tedspread&utm_medium=referral&utm_source=tedcomshare  Standard YouTube License.

Relman, E. (2019). A GOP senator brought a giant picture of Ronald Reagan riding a dinosaur to argue against Democrats’ Green New Deal. Here are 10 other wild props members have brought to the floor. Business Insider. [Video]  https://www.businessinsider.com/ranked-10-best-props-congress-2017-8?fbclid=IwAR2XRZC0VnjxMu6NqnjCAMBoDuaX2WS5Z7rYNtCEzPGMATsJkWhxh0WyRiE  Standard YouTube License.

Scarpitti, Ml (2011). Differences in tilled and no till soil.[Video] YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q1aR5OLgcc0&feature=youtu.be  Standard YouTube License.

Schiefelbein, A. (2020). Anderea Schiefelbein “beyond pink and blue”-Informative Speaking. Nationals 2019. [Video] YouTube.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rVBUarS1H7U Standard YouTube License.

Taylor, J.B. (2008). My stroke of insight. TedTalk [Video] YouTube.  https://www.ted.com/talks/jill_bolte_taylor_my_stroke_of_insight  Standard YouTube License.

Valasquez, L. (2014). How do you define yourself. Ted [Video] YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QzPbY9ufnQY  Standard YouTube License.

Valentin, C. (2015). Craig Valentine Speaks About His Nametag.[Video] YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e_KRqkmPmag&feature=youtu.be  Standard YouTube License.

Winston, P. (2019). How to speak by Patrick Winston. [Video] YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Unzc731iCUY  Standard YouTube License.

Zimmerman, J. (2017). How to “prop up” your next presentation. Presentation Guru. https://www.presentation-guru.com/how-to-prop-up-your-next-presentation/#:~:text=In%20a%20presentation%2C%20props%20are,be%20handled%20by%20the%20presenter.

Zimmer, J. (2011). Ten tips for using props in a presentation. Manner of speaking. https://mannerofspeaking.org/2011/09/29/ten-tips-for-using-props-in-a-presentation/

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Advanced Public Speaking (BETA) by Lynn Meade is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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