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Speaking Of Props

Of all of the wonderful storytellers that I’ve seen, very few use props on a consistent basis.  When they do, the props are often used to catch the eye and create a suggestion in the mind of each audience member.

Corporate storytellers are a different breed.  Their props often consist of PowerPoint presentations…almost to the point that the images fail to leave any kind of an impression unless they are emotionally striking or completely unexpected.  In a corporate environment, we expect to see projected images.  When we don’t, we are called upon to pay extra attention until we become comfortable with the “new” presentation environment.

I’m not one of those who would lead a rallying cry against projected images.  I have seen them used to tremendous effect in corporate storytelling presentations.  A single picture can replace a thousand words.

My point today is not to think of projected images as the “default prop”…much as a flipchart used to be many years ago.  There are other props that can produce a more lasting impact.

Here are three strong ones that I remember:

I recall attending an icebreaker Toastmasters presentation about 20-years ago.  The presenter was Nicole Tolbert, and her story was a self-introduction.

She had a table set up next to her, and she told five anecdotes about different stages in her life.  As she began each stage, she displayed a pair of shoes on the table to illustrate the period.

I can vividly recall her comment, “Occasionally, I chose the wrong path and made a serious mistake.”  At that point, she displayed two ankle brace boots such as one would use with crutches.  Her presentation was both creative and very memorable…a great use of props.

The second storyteller was presentation instructor extraordinaire, Bob Pike.  His props were an empty glass and a pitcher of water on a table next to him.  The point he wanted to illustrate was that many trainers make the mistake of “pouring too much information” into their students without allowing time for it to be absorbed.

He would pour water from the pitcher in continual splashes until the water overflowed and spilled onto the floor.  This was a great illustration that the mind of the learner could only hold so much information at one time.  It also made an impact because it was unexpected.  (Surely he was going to stop before the water spilled over the edge of the glass onto the floor!  …Ah, no, he did not!)

Once again, this use of props made quite an impression.  When I’m doing a presentation, I do more frequent breaks.  (Interestingly enough, audiences do not need as frequent breaks if they find a story to be intriguing.)

My final example is from Stephen R. Covey whose 7 HABITS OF HIGHLY EFFECTIVE PEOPLE influenced so many people all over the world.  If you ever had the opportunity to attend a live presentation conducted by Mr. Covey, you know already that he could tell memorable stories.  One of them used props.

He had a jar that contained many pebbles, and a number of larger rocks that he put on a table beside the jar.  A participant was called up to the stage from the audience and asked to put as many rocks as possible into the jar.  Each rock represented something that was important to the participant.

Very soon, it became apparent that not all of the rocks were going to fit into the container.  Something would need to be left out.

At this point, Mr. Covey would empty the jar of the pebbles…the “little things”…and then invite the participant to try again.  This time, all of the rocks fit inside because they were put in first, and there was even room for many of the pebbles to fill in the empty spaces.  The message, of course, was to begin with the important things first and the demonstration definitely created a lasting image.

In each of these examples, props enhanced the story.  They gave the audience a visual image to carry with them.  To this day, it is difficult for me to see an empty glass next to a full pitcher of water and not think, “Don’t overfill the glass.”

Are there moments in your corporate storytelling when a prop will add an extra “pop” to your message?  If so, how can you use it to the best effect?

Thanks for reading.

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