PROPer Presentations

By Heather Baldwin

When Irene Zucker gave a presentation recently, she put a large chunk of pyrite, or Fool’s Gold, on the table in front of her. She didn’t say a word about it, but it was quickly clear what that hunk of “gold” meant as she laced her presentation with phrases like nuggets of information and nuggets of wisdom. Think her audience remembered her message? You bet. “Props are an excellent way to subliminally get your message across,” says Zucker, president of Dallas-based VerbaCom, an international executive training company specializing in public speaking training ( “But you must remember not to overpower your presentation with it. The prop should just support it.”

Long after you have left the room, your audience will remember your prop and thus will remember your presentation, which is why a good visual aid can give you so much more mileage than a PowerPoint background or a neat piece of clipart. To illustrate just how effective a prop can be, Zucker tells the story of a speech contest at which one speaker, before he ever opened his mouth, walked on stage, pulled a gun from his jacket and began striding, gun pointed, to a nearby audience member. The person in the audience, of course, had been warned ahead of time. But to everyone else it was a heart-stopping moment of panic. As they gasped and recoiled in alarm, the speaker said: No, no! It’s a toy gun! Then he walked back to the lectern, laid the gun on a table in plain view and began his speech: Ladies and gentlemen (pause)…at any time (pause)…in any place (pause)…any person can walk in and start shooting, he began. His topic was gun control and, as a result of that stunning introduction, he had the audience’s rapt attention throughout the speech. He won the contest hands down, says Zucker.

While you might not want to give your prospects that degree of alarm, you still can open your presentation with figurative guns blazing by using a well-placed and meaningful prop. It can be as simple as the product you’re selling or it can be more abstract, like the nugget of gold. The key is to give the audience something visual that makes an impression, grabs their attention and helps them remember your message after you have left the building. “It’s all in the opening and how you’re going to grab the audience’s attention,” says Zucker. “Props are a great opportunity for a presenter to make a dynamic opening.”