Scientist Jill Bolte Taylor is a brain scientist who experienced a massive stroke in 1996. In her TED talk, “My Stroke of Insight,” she explains how she woke up one day to find her brain shutting down. “And in the course of four hours,” she says, “I watched my brain completely deteriorate in its ability to process all information. On the morning of the hemorrhage I could not walk, talk, read, write or recall any of my life. I essentially became an infant in a woman’s body.”
Taylor’s TED talk, the seventh most popular one of all time, is extraordinary in and of itself. It’s also an excellent example of how to use a prop – in this case, a human brain – to complement your presentation.
Here are five tips we can learn from her speech.
Tip #1 – Make it Meaningful
Early in her presentation, Taylor mentions the human brain and the audience immediately leans in. As Taylor puts on medical gloves, nervous laughter and mumbling float through the room. When she turns to face the audience, everyone zeros in on the moist, gray tissue (complete with a dangling spinal cord) that she cradles in her hands.
Taylor’s prop is meaningful on several levels. First, she uses the brain in a pragmatic sense to explain the difference between the right and left hemispheres. Seeing the two clearly-divided chambers helps us understand what otherwise might have become a complicated medical explanation.
Second, the prop is meaningful because it’s unusual. How many of us have ever seen an actual human brain, even though it’s so vital for every function we perform? Just as Taylor analyzed her brain that terrible morning of the stroke, we too are focused on the brain in front of us, learning what happens when a clot forms (in her case, golf-ball sized), blood vessels explode, and our body suddenly shuts down.
Tip #2 – Keep it Simple
No prop is fool proof, so keeping it simple is your best chance to avoid problems. That means don’t plan on attaching a cable to the ceiling or floor. Don’t use a huge tank of water or bring an animal on stage. And don’t have a robot doing complex maneuvers up and down the aisles. Unless you can test your prop in advance (and have a backup plan if it doesn’t work), you risk something big going wrong. Or worse, creating a distraction that undermines your credibility as a speaker.
Instead, select a concrete item to illustrate what you’re talking about. For example, can you use your grandfather’s telescope to talk about his dreams for a better future? The purple geode you found in 8th grade to address the pace of change? Or the silver watch, given to you by your dying Aunt, to underscore work-life balance? The best props are often concrete, physical items that provide insight into your topic.
Tip #3 – Put it Aside
Don’t hold your prop during the entire speech. Consider Taylor’s presentation. When she was done with the brain, she placed it back on a tray and an assistant carried it off stage. In fact, she used it only for about a minute.
Bill Gates provides another good example. He used a jar of mosquitoes as a prop in his TED talk about malaria in 2009. He opened the jar, then put it on a side table while speaking. He didn’t upstage himself, but instead kept the jar handy so he could refer back to it when needed.
In addition, avoid the temptation to pass your prop around the room, which instantly diverts people’s attention, taking all eyes off of you. As an alternative, you can invite folks up to the stage to see it after your presentation. This is a great way to continue a dialogue, not to mention exchange business cards.
Tip #4 – Right-size It
I took a play-writing class a few months ago. Our teacher told us about a student play that he’d reviewed in which the entire plot rested on a tiny picture in a locket. In Act III, the “big reveal” with the locket was the cultivating moment of the entire play. The problem was, as our teacher pointed out, the picture inside the locket was about a centimeter in diameter. In other words, too small for most folks to see it.
For your remarks, select props that are neither too big or too small. What size is that exactly? Before your talk, hold your prop up on stage and ask someone standing in the back if they can see it. (This is also a good way to check your font size on slides.)
At the 2017 MCON Conference, Diana Aviv, then head of Feeding America, used the right size prop in her speech. In a presentation about food waste, she used apples to show that 40% of all food harvested in the US ends up in landfills. Aviv’s prop? A clear glass bowl filled with ten apples. She moved four of them to another bowl, explaining why each would be rejected from the marketplace. One apple had a blemish. Another was misshapen. Others were too big or too small. The clear glass bowl and ten apples stood out on stage. Her example showed us clearly why 40% of healthy, edible food never makes it to our grocery stores.
Tip #5 – Practice with Them
What if Taylor had dropped the human brain? What if Gates struggled to open the jar of mosquitoes?
Perhaps my most important tip is to practice handling your prop beforehand. Be familiar with it. Know what you’re going to say and when you’ll say it. Most people get nervous when they’re giving a speech. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed, lose the thread of your argument, and forget why the heck you’re standing there holding a wooden African mask in front of a hundred people. Those three minutes of rehearsing with your prop will pay dividends.
Props are under-used tools that can turn an above-average talk into an extraordinary one. When used correctly, they can be a powerful tool that amplifies your message. Select a meaningful, creative, tangible prop. Make sure it’s the right size for the venue and, when you’re done with it, put it aside or send it back stage. And above all, practice with your prop to help make your next speech unforgettable.
Have another tip about using props? What’s worked (or not) for you in the past? I’d love to hear from you at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks.