props in presentations: 4 benefits, 3 problems

Memorable presentations are the starting point

One of the keys to a great presentation is being memorable, right? And most presentations are only 2D – that is they use images on slides (or text if you’re unlucky). One of the easy ways to stand out is to make things 3D by using props in your presentations.

Without further ado, here’s the good, the bad and the ugly about using props in your presentations!

Positives of using props in your presentations

Most presentations barely work, and yet there are soooo many of them (30m per day according to Microsoft alone!) that standing out becomes both

  • harder and
  • more important

than ever. As so few people use props in their presentation it’s pretty self evident that you’re off to a flying start here! Just the act of using props in your presentation (almost anything will do!) you make it more memorable. You stand out from the crowd – awesome. You don’t even have to be good!

That said, a judicious use of props also adds other things to your presentation other than simply being different.

Better modelling of your problem

how cool - using whisky bottles as props in presentations!

Let’s face it, some things are just more easily understood when they’re demonstrated rather than talked about. If you want to make a presentation about the brush-stroke style in the Mona Lisa it’s much easier if you can show the picture on screen, right? And how much more impactful would it be if you could include brushes in your presentation as props with your audience trying out the techniques?!

We learn by doing, so trying to copy the various styles would be cool.

And if you’re talking about the different types of whisky in your presentation, you’re going to get my vote if that presentation includes the ability to smell and taste whisky rather than just see pictures of it.

In other words, props can sometimes bring things much more to life.

(Related to this is the idea that props can give a visual or physical metaphor too. My mate Dave Algeo uses piles of cabbages in people’s arms to illustrate how much we concentrate on the wrong things, for example!)

More senses, more memory

Linked to the idea above is the idea that just stimulating more senses in your presentations increases engagement and memory. Even if I can’t taste the whisky, just passing a bottle around the audience is better than just showing it on the screen.

To take this further, using props also changes your audience from passive to active participants. You can’t sit there and not engage with a 3D prop as easily as you can zone out for a 2D image of that same prop… and an active audience, an engaged audience, is more likely to be an interested audience.


Being real here, delivering a cracking presentation is only half your job in a lot of places. The other half of your job is making the presentation look cool to people who weren’t there. That might be things like:

Finishing the presentation playing a cajon
Finishing the presentation playing a cajon
  • using images of the presentation/props on social media for your own publicity
  • hyping the presentation in a company newsletter (or whatever)
  • random blog posts, later 馃槈

but whatever it is, props make that easier. A cool prop makes you look cool. (Or in my case, less uncool, ‘cos Cajons are awesome and I’m not.)

Take away props

Remember the stuff about what’s important in your presentation? It’s not you (sorry to burst your bubble). It’s barely your audience. Barely even your message! It’s what your audience does with that message after the presentation, and my experience is that (sadly) most presentations don’t result in action by the audience.

I’ve also noticed, however, that take-away props can significantly increase the chances of your audience getting stuck in to your Call to Action after the presentation. Think of it as if your prop is like you phoning them up later and saying “remember me? I gave that fantastic presentation last week”.

Things I’ve seen used successfully as take-away props include:

  • cheat sheets as a checklist of ‘what to do next’ or as an infographic summary of your presentations
  • spoons (branded!)
  • cuddly toys
  • USB sticks; and even
  • (painted) stones!

My advice is that your prob should balance being useful and an organic part of your presentation with being a little bit unusual. You want to stand out without it looking like a gimmick. Something useful such as the checklist is going to become part of your audience’s everyday activity more than wooden spoons.

Problems with using props in your presentations

It’s not all roses in the garden of props. There are things that can go wrong.

Logistics and props

You’ve heard Murphy’s Law I’m sure. If it can go wrong, it will. Props take that to a whole new level!

The best you can do is practice with the prop. Then practice more and more and more. And then think about what you’re going to do/say when the prop behaves in your presentation in a way you’ve never seen in those rehearsals.

Trust me, it will.

A box that always opened when you touch the lock in rehearsal will have more sticking power than a whole roll of gaffa tape when there’s an audience there. Does this sound like the voice of experience?

And then of course there’s the risk of the rehearsal making the risk of the live presentation higher – rehearsing with anything that needs batteries makes it more likely the batteries will die in the middle of the real presentation unless you swap them for fresh… and then you can bet that one time in three you’ll put the damned things in the wrong way around…..! 馃檪

Using your props on the day

And while we’re talking logistics, ask yourself how you’ll smoooooooothly integrate your props on stage or in front of a camera. If you take a few seconds to grab the pro, that’s dead time to your audience and so risks your audience stoping being engaged – so make it slick. Ask yourself a few key questions, such as:

  • where do I put the prop so that it’s easy to get the moment I need it?
  • where do I put it so that it’s not distracting my audience until that moment?
  • as above but not distracting me!?
  • how do I elegantly get rid of the prop with no ‘down time’ for the presentation when I no longer need it?
  • how do I get the audiences’s attention back on me when I’ve finished with the prop?

Let’s take our hypothetical paintbrushes from earlier. If you hand out the brushes at the right moment in your presentation there’s a minute or two when there’s no actual presentation happening. On the other hand if you hand them out beforehand you know in your bones that people are going to be fiddling with their brush and not listening to you.

And what do you do when they’ve had a go? How do you collect them and/or deal with the inevitable mess?

Good luck with that!

Stand-out-moment prop problems

Here’s the deal – if your presentation contains only one or two prop-using-moments, guess what your audience are going to remember?

Yeah, those.

People only have a certain capacity to pay attention, so if you absolutely delight them with a fantastic prop, guess how much attention they’re paying to the rest of the presentation?

Yeah, less.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t use a prop just because it shows up how boring the rest of your presentation is by comparison but at least think about it, okay? (More about that specific problem, here.)

And while we’re talking about props standing out… one of the most common problems with props is getting carried away. I can’t count the number of props I’ve seen used in presentations added for the desperate and obvious purpose of spicing the presentation up – of making an otherwise boring presentation a bit more ‘fun’.

By all means make your presentations engaging (which isn’t the same as entertaining!) but doing that by using a prop which doesn’t significantly and organically add to the presentation is about as appropriate as me making this blog more ‘interesting’ by adding this picture of a cute kitten. Sure it’s nice to look at (if you’re into cats) but what does it add?

Audience responses to your props

Let’s face it, some audiences aren’t ready for your prop, no matter how cool it is or how much it adds to your presentation. I’ve used Mexican wrestling masks before with researchers in training, but I’d not dream of doing that with the same academics at a formal conference!

I’ve even finished presentations playing the cajon on stage (hell of a prop to hide, by the way!) and the audience loved it (standing ovation, clapping along!) but there’s no way I’d use that with the same business audience if I was doing roughly the same presentation in their boardrooms rather than at a conference on a big stage.

You get the idea.

Some audiences will react negatively. Use your judgement and common sense. My personal advice is to use props that are the minimum to do the job otherwise you risk your audience feeling that you’re just using a gimmick, not a prop.

And they’re probably right.

So how should props be used to enhance your presentation?

There’s a lot of common sense and “taking each case on its own merits” here but here’s a couple of things to think through and I’ve given plenty of hints when I’ve been talking about what goes wrong… But… does your prop

  • increase the chances of your audience understanding/remembering what you’re talking about significantly?
  • not have even a whiff of self-indulgence?

That latter point is harder to judge than you think of course. That’s why my advice is to use the minimum-impact-prop that does the job. Remember our painter from before? Chances are, seeing a demonstration, done well, will have almost as much impact as trying things out for themselves – and without the hassle of all the logistic and pedagogic problems I’ve just outlined.

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