Use Props in Your Presentations

After decades of using cast iron and then ductile iron pipe (DIP), the water utility was being asked by a member of the local developer community to allow use of polyvinyl chloride (PVC) pipe. The principal argument for the PVC pipe was less initial material cost. In response, the utility’s board created an advisory committee to investigate and report back with recommendations.

The utility’s construction manager opposed allowing PVC pipe. Accordingly, he made a presentation to the advisory committee during which he stressed what he viewed as negative aspects of PVC pipe and positive features of DIP.

The construction manager referred to a 20-foot long, eight-inch-diameter PVC pipe that he had placed in the meeting room. He noted that when PVC pipe failed, the failure tended to affect the entire length of pipe and require an excavation more than 20 feet long. In contrast, DIP failures tended to be localized. They were repaired by excavating a small hole down to and around the pipe and clamping a saddle over the failure. He showed the audience a saddle and listeners could not help but note the small size of the saddle compared to the 20-foot length of PVC pipe. The large size differential between the two objects also reinforced the relative size of the repair excavation and, by extension, the relative repair costs.

Clearly, the speaker could have simply described the high cost of repairing PVC failures relative to the cost of repairing DIP. However, creative use of the two props greatly enhanced his argument. (Note that the request to allow use of PVC pipe was ultimately denied as a result of many factors, only one of which was differential repair costs.)

Our speaking opportunities, that is, engineers and other professionals speaking to clients, owners, stakeholders, boards, councils, students, and colleagues, typically include traditional visual aids. PowerPoint is heavily used, or perhaps more accurately, over used. And that use rarely reflects what recent research reveals is the most effective slide format.

We rarely use props. This is ironic, especially for engineers, architects, and similar professions in that we plan, design, construct, and operate things—structures, facilities, and systems—that serve the needs of our clients and the public. We have access to highly-varied potential prop material, the creative use of which could enhance our communication effectiveness, especially for visual and kinesthetic learners. These learners prefer to understand by seeing and touching or handling objects in contrast with auditory learners who tend to focus on spoken words. Given that we rarely know the learning preferences of audience members, we should anticipate that all three types—auditory, visual, and kinesthetic—are likely to be present and plan our presentation accordingly.

As an aside, I wondered why we use the term “prop.” It comes from the theatrical world and is a shortened form of “property,” which means any object handled by an actor during a performance. When you and I give a presentation we are like actors giving a performance during which we strive to communicate with our audiences. Let’s be creative and use whatever works, including props.

Some additional actual illustrations of using props to enhance communication:

  • An engineer was trying to explain various consequences of leaks in municipal water distribution systems. To illustrate one kind of damage he brought to the meeting and used a large, heavy brass valve that had been deeply eroded—several inches—as a result of proximity to a water jet issuing from a hole in a water main.
  • A city’s director of engineering occasionally brought a baseball bat to meetings to, as he said, “get attention” (hopefully symbolically).
  • A consultant was speaking to senior civil engineering students about “10 Tips for Achieving Success and Significance.” A memorable prop was used for each tip. For example, the speaker held a crystal vase drawing parallels between it and one’s reputation. Each person’s reputation, like a hand-crafted vase, is unique. Major time and effort goes into building a reputation and in creating a crystal vase. Once shattered, a reputation, like the vase, is impossible to restore.
  • A professor used a rectangular cross-section foam beam, with longitudinal parallel lines drawn on it, to show tension and compression.

Perhaps my thoughts about recognizing different types of learners, especially the visual and kinesthetic learners, reinforced with the prop examples provided above, will stimulate you to think about using props to more fully use your speaking  opportunities. As noted by consultant Mel Hensey, “communication is not what is intended, but what is received by others.” Judicious use of props will help others receive what you intended them to receive.

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