Bill Gates was in the middle of making a passionate plea for malaria relief in a 2009 TED Talk before an audience in Long Beach, California, when he did something shocking.
He reached for a jar, unscrewed the lid, and released a cloud of mosquitos into the room, saying: “Not only poor people should experience this.”
There was some nervous laughter, but probably more than a few audience members’ hearts stopped cold for a second. Of course, the mosquitos weren’t carrying malaria, but Gates gave everyone an abrupt sense of the fear the disease still inspires. He also gave a prime example of how the right prop at the right time can be tremendously effective.
If you want to drive your messages home with that degree of long-term impact in your next presentation, you should consider finding a compelling prop.
One advantage of using props is that they can distill your message into memorable images. Just like the Bohr Model helped you understand atoms in chemistry class, physical representations of an abstract idea can help your listeners wrap their minds around it.
I use props to explain speaking concepts in my Leadership Speaking Bootcamp program. To illustrate intensity, for instance, I pass out wooden blocks and ask participants to hit them together softly, noting how their bodies feel. Then, I tell them to slam the blocks together with more force and note the difference. That’s what intensity feels like—and it’s a much more powerful demonstration than just reading the definition of the word on a PowerPoint slide.
When you want to cut through distractions and keep your audience laser-focused on your main message, you can increase your impact by using the right prop.
During a major financial crisis, I worked with a top executive at Ford who was preparing for his first-ever informal meeting with the board. He wanted to emphasize that, while it was true one area of his business had a major problem, the business as a whole was still in great shape. I came up with a creative prop idea: I knew he was a big fan of model cars (which might not come as a surprise), so I told him to choose one, put a scratch on one of its doors, and bring it into the meeting. I suggested he set the car down on the table and say: “There’s a scratch on the door, but this is still a terrific car. Our business is the same way. Yes, we had a major problem, but the business is still strong.”
A few weeks later he sent me a picture of himself holding the car with a big grin on his face. The caption read: “Just a scratch!” It was a powerful way to open his presentation. He succeeded in making an impact and keeping focus on the positive, big picture.
Just by choosing to use a prop in the first place, you’re already setting yourself apart. Most of us have had to sit through more PowerPoint presentations than we can count; in that sense, at least, the bar for appearing bold and engaging your audience is pretty low.
I once had a client who had just been promoted to the top sales position at a major company. He was the third leader in that role in two years, and the sales force was demoralized. My wanted to make a strong statement of optimism and project bold leadership. So we stuffed three big duffel bags with paper and wrote “Disappointments,” “Failed Strategies,” and “Broken Promises” on the bags, in giant letters. My client trudged on stage, struggling to walk as though they were very heavy. Then he said, “We have to get beyond disappointments,” and threw the first bag into the audience. “We have to get beyond failed strategies”—and threw that bag into the audience. Finally, he said, “And we have to get beyond broken promises,” and threw the final bag exuberantly into the audience.
Not only was the room fully energized, he made a big impact, introducing himself as someone more than just another executive. How powerful would it have been had he just talked for 20 minutes about how the company was going to turn around? Instead, he jolted the audience awake and made a real connection.
To be sure, not all props have their place, and some can feel more gimmicky than impactful. Carefully choosing a prop that aligns with your message and resonates with your listeners is key. But do it right, and you’ll add power to your ideas and clarity to your vision.