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‹ View all articles 2nd December 2012

When props attack! How to use visual aids for good, not evil

Delivering a Talk

A prop, also known as an actual physical object (yes I know it seems strangely old fashioned in the digital age) can add freshness and excitement to your audience. But what happens to presenters when their props attack?! And what can you do to use visual aids well? We learn from where the likes of Bill Gates (and other Microsoft colleagues) have failed...

 Since the world has become outrageously addicted to Powerpoint and slide presentations (think: awkward school educational movie on "The Difference between Boys and Girls" )... it could very well liven up your audience by taking them by surprise with visual aids.

But what happens if your props turn on you? Here are four terrible moments when visual aids have attacked their speakers:

Prop attack # 4. Steve Jurvetson proves the value of testing your props

You're speaking at TED and I'm guessing it's quite a big deal. You have a world-class platform to demonstrate a brand new super-duper technology to all your smartest pals. So the last thing you want is for your prop to malfunction in the worst possible way. Let's say, for example, that your wonderful waterproof thing... well, isn't...

"At TED I did a live, and unfortunately, unrehearsed demo of the Nanotex waterproof khakis. I took a glass of water and splashed my waist with vigor to show how it would leave no mark. In a freak instance of fabric folding, the bolus of water hooked into a gaping open pant pocket. The inner pocket lining did not have any Nanotex coating…. "

— Steve Jurvetson, Managing DirectorDraper Fisher Jurvetson

Luckily for Steve, his underpants ended up soaked, but the audience couldn't see it. Still, it's not the most comfortable way to deliver the talk of your life. Be warned Steve, those props are out to get you!

Prop attack # 3. At least Microsoft don't have prop malfunctions...

We all know how great an Apple product launch is, so it's great to see Microsoft keeping up with their rivals in their product launches. Oh, wait... what? Another Microsoft product launch crash? It's all going rather well until Steven Sinofsky's lovely, reliable new piece of software refuses to play ball...

Note to the Microsoft props department:  If you're going to use your prop to demonstrate "browsing smoothly", you'd better make sure it's up to the task!

Prop attack # 2. When the visual aid encourages the audience to attack

Then there are those times when visual aids ruin more than just a few moments of a talk. Dana Boyd was a nervy public speaker at a Web 2.0 expo, who faced the trauma of a twitter stream behind her that she couldn't see. Whilst she was speaking, the audience started to tweet that she was speaking too fast. Because she couldn't see it, all she saw was the audience fidgeting and losing interest in what she was saying. The more she was put off, the more they tweeted against her. Tough crowd!

Read about Dana's twitter stream nightmare here.

Prop attack # 1. When props attack the audience

My favourite example of a prop attacking was Bill Gates' (in)famous decision to release mosquitoes into a TED audience, which was much panicked about at the time. In truth I think it was a rather good joke - "I don't see why only poor people should be infected with malaria" was his quip, before reassuring us that those mosquitoes weren't infected.

There's a fine line though, isn't there between using a prop that's innovative and memorable versus annoying your audience. I think Bill actually pulled it off this time, what do you think?

So, if these are some of the ways props can attack the presenter or audience, how to use visual aids for good, not evil? Try thinking outside of the box by perhaps using... a box.

Imagine a presenter using a box metaphor while actually holding a real live box. (Novel idea I know) "Inside this box are secrets that can help you create a happier life. But somehow I've lost forgotten the combination so we'll have to just figure out these secrets together"

The box does several things:

  • Immediately the audience wants to know what's inside the box.
  • Visually stimulates and reinforces the metaphorical message
  • Brings the audience repeatedly back to the ideas held inside the box. In this instance happiness.

But make sure you keep your props under control or they very well could... attack. 

  • The prop must be visible to the entire audience - a tiny visual aid in your hand just won't work for a big group
  • Don't become a prop-master and clutter your stage with "stuff" - keep your visual aids simple
  • Keep props relevant to your content. Even though a watermelon might be a cool prop, you'd better be able to explain what it has to do with macro-economics.
Do:
  • Keep things interesting with fresh ideas for visual aids
  • Keep your prop hidden as long as possible; surprise is your friend
  • Use items appropriate for your topic
  • Make sure your prop works
  • Have a backup in case things go wrong
  • Use your visual aids to add texture and memorability to your presentation
Don't:
  • Leave a prop or visual aid doing something that distracts your audience's attention away from you
  • Attempt to shock people with vulgarity (or mosquitoes!)
  • Wave things in front of your face
  • Use too many props lest you look like a jester
  • Harm people (don't laugh, it's happened. Okay laugh - but don't do it.)
 Do you have any prop or visual aid nightmares to share? We'd love to hear them below...

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