Guide on the Side – Getting the Drop on Props

(Archived October 1, 1998)

Marie Wallace has enjoyed a fulfilling career as a librarian, beginning in 1951 in academia with the University of California and transitioning in 1971 into the private law library world until her 1995 retirement from O’Melveny & Myers. She is the 1997 recipient of the American Association of Law Libraries’ highest honor, the Marian Gould Gallagher Distinguished Service Award. Throughout her professional life, Marie has been a guiding force in the Southern California Association of Law Libraries, Practising Law Institute’s programs for law librarians and Teaching Legal Research in Private Law Libraries (TRIPLL).

Today, Marie has commenced on a new path she terms “Life in Progress,” which enables her to pursue a diversity of interests as a master swimmer, law librarian, trainer, storyboarder and designer of wearable art. She continues to be a dynamic speaker and prolific writer on such topics as private law library management, presentations and training. She is a member of Toastmasters International and is active with the American Society for Training & Development (ASTD) and in continuing education for private law librarians. She devotes her “free” time to various non-profit and civic activities. Always open to new ideas, Marie can be reached at: [email protected].

Often a well selected prop significantly enriches a presentation either by setting the tone, creating a surprise or providing a visual joke. Used at the beginning of a speech, it can break the ice and help connect with the audience. Generally props are easy to use, fun to plan and well received by the audience. My advice is to try them. Generally they work. There are just a few caveats.

First of all, what is a prop? Any artifact or object such as finger puppets, colored swatches of cloth, toys, puzzles, that is integral to a presentation and that is used by the presenter to make a point. Usually it is something the speaker manipulates but it can also be something that the audience uses. At a recent seminar on fundraising for a youth group, the trainer passed out sticks of clay to the attendees with the instructions that they play with the clay to reinforce the seminar’s content by using their hands to mold a shape which expressed their vision of the fundraising project. At share time some highly imaginative sculptures were revealed.

Props fall into four general classes:

  • Humor or surprise
  • Metaphor
  • Illustrate a unique quality
  • Serve as the speaker’s outline

Examples of Props Used for Humor or Surprise

In a legal research class for new associates, one of the topics was how to use looseleaf services. The day before I collected several waste baskets full of superseded pages and put them in a large green trash bag and brought it to the class. I announced as I emptied the trash bag on the floor, “This is the law. There is too much of it and it is not organized.” I went on, “This is the basic problem of research but looseleaf services help bring you law and order. There is a second lesson here. Don’t drop the binder.”

The speaker’s title was, There is A Dangerous Chemical is in our Midst. The speech was all about this unnamed chemical, how prevalent it was, what bad things it did to people. At the end, the speaker reached in her pocket and brought out a picnic size container of Morton’s Salt. This was the dangerous culprit.

The young bachelor’s subject was, How to Survive in the Gas Line. This was during the Arab gasoline embargo of the 70’s. The speaker told how he always had a survival basket in his car to meet girls while waiting in line. It contained a loaf of bread, a jug of wine, a book of verse, and a blanket.

Examples of Props Used as Metaphors

Virginia Wise used a potted narcissus as a metaphor for a session on Needs Assessment: How Does your Garden Grow at a TRIPLL Conference. Her message was the instructor needs to focus on the needs of the learner not on the narcissistic needs of the instructor to teach everything he or she knows.

At the same TRIPLL Conference, Ellen Schaffer used a metaphor so vividly with out a prop that it qualifies as an imaginary prop. Her topic was to demonstrate how to teach a complex subject–the GATT–by teaching it to the Conference attendees. The metaphor she used for the GATT was that you are climbing and climbing a tall mountain. After an exhausting struggle to the top and you find a big, locked door.

A UCLA Library School and Information Science class prepared a panel presentation on how management decisions are made. They used the metaphor of a basketball game and had a basket ball that was used strategically throughout to dribble, pass, and score. When one panel finished, the ball was thrown to the next group of panelists with the yell “Ball in your court.”

Paul Mitchell used a variety of colorful plastic children’s toys to illustrate How to Make your Vision Real at a TRIPLL Conference.

Examples of Props Used to Reinforce a Unique Quality

Tory Trotta assumed a whole new identity at an AALL program as Vanna White the AALL “jeopardized” legal research instructor.

At the AALL Workshop on Teaching Legal Research in San Diego, Frank Houdek came out dressed as King Fiche in a suit of armor made of microfiche to demonstrate changing fashions in information technology.

At a PLI program on the law librarian as manager, I brought eight hats and put on a different one as I described each of the roles.

At TRIPLL conferences, I used mobiles to demonstrate fluid quality of teaching legal research and to suggest variety of instructional technology.

At a PLI program Dick Sloane used an electronic cap decorated with battery operated blinking lights when he talked about being wired in the electronic library.

Music was used at many of the TRIPLL meetings to suggest a mood and signal action.

Examples of Prop Serving as the Outline for the Speaker

Ethan Katsh created an animated cartoon and used it as the outline for his speech on Teaching Legal Research to the MTV Generation at an AALL Annual Meeting.

I often create colorful banners out of felt and tacked them on the wall for long presentations. Each shape on the banner is a subtopic and the order is my outline.

Joanne Feierman used the features of a hand held computer that her brother had given her for her presentation on lesson planning at a TRIPLL Conference.

Spring Asher uses a wide variety of props, including coke bottles and cowboy boots props for her presentations on how to make presentations at TRIPLL Conferences.

Avoiding Flops With Props


Can the prop be seen or heard by the expected audience. Small items can be seen by small audiences. If the audience is large, the props need to be big enough to be seen (heard) at the back of the room. Test it out beforehand.


Where do you put or hide them until they are needed. If you leave them at the lectern or on the speaker’s table someone else may think they are junk and trash them. This includes not only panelists but the facilities staff.

Will it work?

If it has batteries or needs to be wound up, there is always the chance that it might not work–just like the new technology. Be sure to try it at the presentation site. There is a big difference between a rug on the floor and hardwood.

If it is a garment, can you put it on quickly?

Is it appropriate to the subject and audience?

Avoid getting silly at a serious occasion. However, you have a lot of latitude with the right attitude. I was at a memorial service where the eulogist used a tennis racket, a twenty dollar bill and a bottle of wine effectively and fondly.

Even if you drop the prop, it will probably add an extra dimension to your presentation.

Posted in: Guide on the Side, Presentation Skills