Using Props to Improve Your Presentations

Steve Jobs and other top presenters understand the value of dramatic effect. Try incorporating their ideas into your own routine

On Jan. 24, 1984, Apple’s (AAPL) Steve Jobs introduced the Macintosh computer at the Flint Center in Cupertino, Calif. Several years ago a video of the presentation surfaced on YouTube (GOOG). Jobs, in a double-breasted suit and bow tie (he didn’t always dress in jeans and a black mock turtleneck), displayed a series of photographs of the computer that would transform the industry.

"You’ve just seen some pictures of Macintosh," Jobs said. "Now I’d like to show you Macintosh in person. All of the images that you are about to see on the large screen will be generated by what’s in that bag." Jobs then walked over to a table in the center of the stage, unzipped a canvas carrying case, pulled out the computer and mouse, plugged it in, and, with an especially dramatic flourish, pulled a floppy disk from inside his jacket pocket and inserted it. Jobs then slowly walked to the side as the lights darkened. As the Chariots of Fire theme began to play, the screen filled with images created from MacWrite and MacPaint, two free programs that were shipped with the original Macintosh. The audience went crazy. Jobs had used the computer itself as a prop, a physical object that complemented the photos.

Getting Lazy?

His presentation was one of the most memorable, dramatic, and exciting product announcements of the past 25 years. And Jobs did it without the benefit of a slide deck. Presentation software has made it easy to become lazy. Whether you use PowerPoint or Keynote, the slides themselves should be just one element in your presentation tool kit. Great presenters create dynamic moments to complement the slides.

Recently, I had a Webcam conversation with the Italian entrepreneur and television host Marco Montemagno. Montemagno's talks are among the most engaging I have seen in a long time. He speaks on the topic of Internet culture, showing Italians why the Internet should be embraced and not feared. Montemagno presents to groups of up to 3,000 people in places such as Milan, Rome, and Venice. Since he is trying to bridge a divide between his technical expertise and the everyday language of his audience, Montemagno uses devices meant to engage his listeners. Here are three you can borrow for your own presentations.

1. Give your audience something to do. Montemagno's audience members get a pen and paper before taking their seats. During the presentation, he asks them to turn to the person to their right and in 30 seconds sketch their portrait. He then asks them to write the title of their favorite song, movie, etc. They pass the paper around and repeat the process until the paper has changed hands up to five times. Each audience member then takes home a piece of paper that once belonged to someone else. The exercise is intended to demonstrate how information is shared among individuals across networks.

2. Ask someone to share the stage. In other parts of his presentation, Montemagno will ask for volunteers to join him onstage. In one exercise, he asks them to fold a t-shirt. Most people will take about 20 seconds and fold the shirt in a very conventional way. He then shows a popular YouTube video of someone who demonstrates how to fold a shirt in five seconds. Montemagno then imitates that process as the audience cheers. His point is that the Internet can instruct on a deep, intellectual level, but it can also make the most mundane tasks easier.

3. Make use of your skills onstage. Montemagno is a former world-ranked table tennis player and works that unique skill into his presentations. He invites another professional player onstage, and the two hit the ball back and forth quickly and effortlessly. As they do, Montemagno, speaking into a wireless headset, compares table tennis with the Internet.

Twenty-five years ago, Steve Jobs elevated the art of giving an effective presentation, and he has been doing so ever since. Since few of us normally give presentations on something as exciting as a revolutionary new computer, it’s all the more reason to find creative ways to connect with your audience. As Montemagno told me: "It’s easy to connect with the audience if everyone already knows and loves you, but when they don’t know you, you must find a way to engage them emotionally."

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