10 of the best, unusual, most effective props to use when giving a speech

By Vinette Hoffman-Jackson, Toastmasters International 

When you are giving a presentation using props can add value, clarity or emphasis to a point or an idea.  If used well they blend effortlessly into the flow of your speech.

An excellent example can be seen in Kenny Nguyen’s TEDx talk. He refers to the “sword of yes” and “shield of no.” and picks up a sword and shield to help demonstrate his points.  His props supported the content and he introduces and uses them seamlessly.

Maya Angelou, the American poet once said, ‘People may forget what you say, people may forget what you do but they will never forget how you made them feel’.  And as you know she is an impactful speaker.  Bear what she says in mind as you go through the suggested props below and consider how you can use them to make your next presentation even more memorable

Clothes: Your clothing communicates with the audience before you even utter your first word.  Think about your colours, patterns, styles, designs that may offend or endear you to your audience. 

Imagery: A picture is worth a thousand words and a video is worth ten thousand.  Most people are visual or kinaesthetic learners and the mind tends to recall things in pictures.  Using pictures or videos in your presentation gives greater opportunity for your presentation to be memorable.  This is also one of the simplest and most effective prop that can be used.

Sounds. Vocal variety helps keep the interest of your audience.  Using a prop that makes a sound adds even more variety to your presentation and stimulates the auditory nerves to work harder to register another frequency.  An unexpected noise can also elicit a physical response which involves your audience even more.  If you are telling an anecdote which involves a fire engine – make the noise of the siren!

Sounds can also extend to an unseen prop that may provide background music and help to create an atmosphere.  Imagine a movie trailer without music and the difference is quite startling.  Now practise your presentation with an appropriate background music track and experience the difference music can make.  Once you gain confidence and experience you can even try changing the tempo to reflect distinct parts of your speech or presentation.

Movement and Interaction. Using a prop that moves or interacts with the audience has the same effect as laser lights to cats.  It gets your audience to move their eyes, heads, or bodies consciously towards a focal point.  It also focusses their attention to exactly where you want them to look.

Getting your audience to move during your presentation provides a break from just sitting and listening. It is engaging and makes it more likely that your presentation will be remembered.  This is why many speakers ask audience members to raise their hands, or get up and move around a bit.  Every presenter wants their audience switched on for their entire presentation which can be quite difficult because the human attention span is quite limited.  Our minds tend to wander at the best of times.  Therefore, getting your audience to respond or engage with your prop ensures they don’t lose focus.

Be specific:  If you want to really engage with your audience and make them feel special, then use a prop that is specific to their culture, geographical location, or some shared passion.  It will not only enhance your presentation, but it will also help to build your credibility as a thoughtful, caring and well researched speaker.  It will show your audience that you thought about them as individuals, made the effort to connect and help build trust and rapport.

You can use colours of a local football club, a song associated with your audience or a picture of a famous landmark.

Smells. Use a prop that smells: Did that statement cause you to react?  The olfactory sense is underutilised senses when it comes to giving a presentation.  There are clever ways to integrate this into your presentation.  

In his 2014 world championship winning speech Dananjaya Hettiarachchi cleverly uses the sense of smell by smelling a rose at the beginning of his speech.  As most of his audience would have had the experience of smelling a flower, this serves to trick their olfactory senses into thinking they are having a similar experience.

Create humour: Laughter is the shortest distance between two people is a quote from Victor Gorge, comedian, and he was right.  Laughter is one of the best emotions that human beings can ever experience.  It relaxes the body and makes the mind more receptive.  Laughter triggers the release of endorphins, which make you feel good.

Laughter not only relaxes your audience, but it creates an emotional, psychological, and physical connection to the speaker.  Most experienced speakers will usually get the audience to laugh within the first thirsty seconds on stage.  Depending on your skills at delivery, a prop that results in laughter is a valuable tool to use in your presentation.  It could be as simple as putting on a hat or showing a slide. 

The unexpected: Bill Gates in his TED talk in 2009, Mosquitoes, Malaria and Education released live mosquitoes into the audience during his talk.  This one prop made it into the categories of the best, most effective prop and the most unusual!  The audience were not only attentive but became emotionally connected to what he was saying by their fear of getting bit by a mosquito that could potentially cause malaria.  The risky and unexpected using of living creatures is unforgettable!

Tips for handling props

It is probably more impactful if your props become visible only when they are needed.  Otherwise you run the risk of curiosity taking over and your audience may be frequently distracted trying to figure out what it is or when your prop will be used.  Your props should also be big enough for the entire audience to see, hear or feel.

The transition before and after using a prop must appear effortless.  Try to avoid ‘the silence’ employed by some speakers immediately before the introduction of a prop as they struggle to get it from wherever it is kept, or straight after it has been used as they attempt to discard their props.  

The ending is also important; what happens to your prop after it has been used and has served its purpose?  Ideally it should be seamlessly removed from the stage or hidden away to avoid possible distractions as you continue your presentation – unless its visibility adds value.

This list of props and ideas provides a good starting point if you decide to integrate props into your next presentation. When you think about what you want your audience to remember you may come up with other props to add to the list.


Vinette Hoffman-Jackson is a multi-award winning public speaker from Toastmasters International, a not-for-profit organisation that has provided communication and leadership skills since 1924 through a worldwide network of clubs. There are more than 400 clubs and 10,000 members in the UK and Ireland. Members follow a structured educational programme to gain skills and confidence in public and impromptu speaking, chairing meetings and time management. To find your nearest club, visit www.toastmasters.org

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