- 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.
- Consider set-up and take-down time.
- Manage your mess: If working with food, glue, or other messy items, bring wipes and a trash bag to clean up.
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 show and put away your prop seamlessly.
- 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).
- 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 with your props 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.
- Physical objects
- Sound equipment
- Projection Slides (See Chapter on Presentation Slides)
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 then he makes it even dirtier. The dirty water causes some people to have a physical reaction. This makes the impact even more memorable when he 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
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.
Watch from 8.59 to the end. He doesn’t use the props right at the cued part, but I show you a little extra of the video for context. 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. Watch this video. Does this help you understand the scientific principles? I know I learned a lot from this demonstration. Notice how he talks as he demonstrates which keeps the audience’s attention. 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. He sure persuaded me to change how I garden.
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. Props can be used to help your audience conceptualize abstract concepts.
Time to watch: 0-2:00
Props 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. The timing of his prop is perfect. The fact that he interacts with the prop really drives home his point in a way that is memorable and impactful.
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. This is a wonderful illustration of how to use multiple types of visuals in a speech.
Wild Props Used By Politicians
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.
- 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.
I want to hear from you.
Do you have an activity to include?
Did you notice a typo that I should correct?
Are you planning to use this as a resource and do you want me to know about it?
Do you want to tell me something that really helped you?
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.
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. (2018). 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/