I think of props as any physical item that is on stage with you. Your flipchart is a prop. Your lectern is a prop. Overhead projectors, pointers, notes, chairs, markers, pens, and other audio/visual aids are all forms of props. Conversely, props are a form of visual aid.
Why use props?
Props help warm up the audience when you do a public speaking engagement. They can be used as a substitute for notes. They help focus attention on the speaking points you are trying to make along with illustrating them for you. They make better connections than your words with the visually oriented members of your audience. They create interest, add variety, and make your points more memorable.
Props can be used pre-program to pass around in the audience in anticipation of the program. You see this at large arenas when beach balls and Frisbees are being tossed around in the crowd. I pass out snacks and/or custom-designed crossword puzzles about the group that I make on my computer. The puzzles make especially great icebreakers because the members of the group get together to help each other with the solutions.
Do you hate relying on notes?
Props can be a substitute for written cheat sheets. To illustrate this in live seminars and television interviews I use three hats as an outline for a program. The first hat is a gag ball cap that has really long hair attached to it so that you look like a hippie when you wear it. The second hat is a black top hat. The third is a safari hat. Each hat prompts me to talk about a thoroughly rehearsed section of my talk.
Putting on the longhaired ball cap immediately reminds me to talk about when the company was young and aggressive. After that section I remove the ball cap (if you have a fun and playful audience, you could put it on an audience member's head), then I put on the black top hat. The top hat prompts a section on the mature growth years of the company. I then put on the safari hat which kicks off a section on searching for new business. The whole talk is done without any notes at all. You only have to memorize your opening and closing and practice each of the sections independently as you learned in a previous issue.
Didn't someone say a prop is worth a thousand words?
Maybe that was a picture, but its just about the same thing. Many times a well selected prop will illustrate your point much better than you could ever do in words. It also focuses attention directly on the point you are trying to make because it is something novel that is occurring during the presentation. People can space out easily on your words, but a unique prop is hard to ignore. Also, the visually oriented people in your audience will perk up and get more value when you use props.
Memorability is another good reason to use props. People remember pictures far longer than words. That is why the treat public speakers that use stories try to use words to create images in your mind. They know the images will be remembered when the words are long forgotten. If you are not a great storyteller yet, you can use props to help create these pictures.
Types of props
There are many different kinds of props that can be used to your advantage in a public speech. Extra large or extra small props are funny. Noisemakers are funny. Even though you are attacking the sense of hearing, you are attacking it in a unique way that makes it memorable. Costumes and magic tricks make good props.
I have a friend who speaks on telephone skills. He uses a giant telephone receiver to make a point about the importance of phone skills. I used a clown prop to make the serious point that if we went through with this merger it would be like being in a thunderstorm with a clown umbrella (for those of you that do not know, a clown umbrella is only about 8 inches in diameter).
Noisemakers are fun. I recommended that a sales manager get one of those expressway revenge devices that makes machine gun, ray gun, and bomb noises when you press a button. If XYA company gets in our way, this is what will do to them (he pressed the machine gun button while holding the device near the microphone). He got his point across.
I have worn gorilla costumes, brought full-size mannequins on stage and kicked them around. I have done simple magic tricks and many other things to get my point across in a more memorable and interesting fashion.
You don't necessarily have to do wild things to use props. A very creative friend of mine, Carolyn Long, was going to speak about the keys to creativity. She opened by holding up keys, then discarded them in favor of a combination lock. Her point was made.
Tips for using props
- Normally you should keep your special props hidden until you are ready to use them.
- Make sure the prop can be seen from all parts of the room.
- ALWAYS speak to the audience, not the prop (unless the prop is a puppet).
- Make sure the audience is focused on surprise props before you unleash the surprise. (If using a fake peanut can with pop out snakes, hold the can in full view for an extra second before you open it so the audience does not miss it).