I once opened a presentation in the usual fashion, thanking my introducer and enthusiastically welcoming the audience. Only this time, I placed a large chunk of pyrite, or Fool's Gold, on the table in front of me during my greeting. I soon engaged the audience, never alluding to the chunk of rock next to me but the audience's body language revealed that they expected some sort of explanation as to why it was there. I then began using phrases like "nuggets of information" and "nuggets of wisdom" when referring to key concepts and soon it became apparent that the chunk of "gold" symbolized the invaluable information I was sharing. The use of the pyrite proudly took center stage, and made my talk a memorable experience because of its relevance and tugs on the imagination as I spurted out words and phrases that made it real. Props are an excellent way to subliminally get the message across and can be very effective as long as they don't overpower the presentation, and don't take the attention off the speaker or the underlying message. The prop should support the verbal message by painting a picture the audience can visualize and relate to.
Long after the presentation has ended, the audience will recall the prop, the presentation and (hopefully), the presenter. A good visual aid that the audience can relate to, can be just as effective as a unique background on overheads or a strategically inserted media frame.
How effective? Although the following example wouldn't be appropriate during these times, it certainly made a lasting impression on me. I once attended a speech contest several years ago where the contestant was introduced and was asked to approach the lectern. He walked on stage as the audience applauded, and without saying a word, pulled a gun from his jacket and walked, gun pointed, to a nearby audience member. The audience member had been warned ahead of time, but to everyone else it was a heart-stopping moment of panic. As the audience gasped and recoiled in alarm, the speaker said, “No, no! It's a toy gun!”. He then slowly stepped back toward a nearby table, laid the toy gun down in full view, proceeded toward the lectern and began his speech.
“Ladies and gentlemen (pause)…at any time (pause)…in any place (pause)...any person can walk in and start shooting.”
His topic was on gun control and, as a result of that stunning introduction, he had the audience's full attention throughout the speech as he adamantly made his case for stricter gun regulation. He won the contest hands down.
While this degree of alarm to grab audience attention may not be appropriate in these times, a presentation can still be opened with (figuratively) guns blazing by using a well-placed prop that helps the audience visualize the message and paints a mental picture of key points. It can be as simple as a representative sample of the product being sold or it can be more abstract. The key is to give the listeners something visual that grabs and holds their attention so that it creates a lasting impression about the message long after the speaker has left the building. The opening portion of any talk is a critical part of the presentation. It determines whether or not the speaker is going to grab the audience's attention at the outset, as all great presentations should, and it sets the tone for the balance of the presentation. Props are a golden opportunity to transform a dull presentation into a memorable experience.
Irene P. Zucker
VerbaCom® Executive Development