Almost all talks at a tech conference go the same way. The speaker uses a slide deck to deliver and illustrate their message. If the speaker is good, the deck is not necessary and serves only to enhance the talk. If the speaker is poor, the deck is used as their speaking notes, and they read from it.
One way to deliver a high impact talk is to go outside this standard format. You can do away with the slides altogether, and give your talk in the format of a traditional speech. This will get the audience’s attention but is also really hard to pull off. And it takes a lot of preparation.
Or you can use a prop—a physical object that is a metaphor for your key idea. This is an effective way to make yourself different and liven up your delivery. It can be very powerful. When Bill Gates gave a TED talk on malaria [V], he also brought with him a jar of live mosquitos, which he proceeded to release on the audience. You can feel the audience’s visceral reaction if you watch that talk.
When a prop works, it works really well. But using a prop is an invitation to disaster. Even Bill had to be sure he didn’t accidentally suffocate his mosquitos on the way to the TED auditorium. In recent years, most of the props that I have seen at tech talks have been used to demonstrate an Internet of Things idea. And most of them have failed in some way.
The device worked as intended, but the audience could not see it because it was too small.
The device needed an internet connection, and the wifi failed. Depending on wifi for your talk is a bad idea—you’re competing with the audience for bandwidth!
The device was not-entirely safe. Internet-controlled smoke machines and fire-alarm systems … do not mix well.
The device was fried by foreign voltage levels. Electrical supply is one of the least standardized parts of our human technology system.
The device just outright failed, and did not work.
Unless you know what you are doing, using hardware in your talk is asking for trouble. And it’s not that original anymore. I’ve given several talks over the years using hardware, and the best results always came when the audience was small, and the device was either large enough to see properly from the back of the room, or was something that moved.
I did a series of talks that used the sphero toy robot as a prop. It has an open controller interface, so makes a good platform for experimentation. It’s also big enough to see even in a large room, and since it moves, it makes a direct impact on the audience. But my talk using the sphero was on the subject of Node.js streams, making the subject matter, and the prop, directly connected to each other. I’m not sure how you would use a sphero as a prop for an unrelated topic.
This brings up the central issue with props. If they work well, they only work for a single talk. They are too dependent on the subject at hand. That’s not a reason not to use them, but it should give you pause. A prop-based talk has more limited reuse potential and is hard to adapt.
More difficult to get right is the alignment of prop and subject matter. If you get this wrong, then you come off as cheesy. Your prop is not a prop, it’s a gimmick, and you lose credibility with the audience.
I would not go out of your way to do a prop-based talk. I would not start from the desire to do something different to impress the audience. Rather, I would wait for the talk itself to suggest a prop naturally. This will happen eventually if you are in the business of giving talks. I would be open to it, but I would not seek it. The general rule to keep things as simple as possible almost always wins out.
Can I ask you for a favor? If you enjoy this newsletter, and if you find it useful, please consider recommending it to a friend who is learning to give technical talks, or who aspires to do so. I meet so many cool programmers who have brilliant things to share with the world—that’s you!
Please help me to improve this newsletter - I'd love to hear your suggestions! You can email me directly: firstname.lastname@example.org. You can tweet too: @metsitaba. Thank you so much for reading!
A special thanks and shout out to Tammy for helping to make this newsletter even better!
HealthClinic.biz demo [V]
I know full well that despite being told not to do an IoT talk with a demo, you're just going to have to go down that road yourself. We all have to do it once. And it is fun mucking about with breadboards and Arduinos and the like.
So given that you're going to do one anyway, here's the ultimate IoT demo. Hanselman uses his own body as part of the system. You're pretty much going to make sure to debug any system like that properly, and you can be near 100% sure the demo will work on stage.
Learn from the best
I think the chimpanzee in captivity who is the most skilled in intellectual performance is one called Ai in Japan -- her name means love -- and she has a wonderfully sensitive partner working with her. She loves her computer -- she'll leave her big group, and her running water, and her trees and everything. And she'll come in to sit at this computer -- it's like a video game for a kid; she's hooked. She's 28, by the way, and she does things with her computer screen and a touchpad that she can do faster than most humans. She does very complex tasks, and I haven't got time to go into them, but the amazing thing about this female is she doesn't like making mistakes. If she has a bad run, and her score isn't good, she'll come and reach up and tap on the glass -- because she can't see the experimenter -- which is asking to have another go. And her concentration -- she's already concentrated hard for 20 minutes or so, and now she wants to do it all over again, just for the satisfaction of having done it better.
Commentary from eloquentwoman.blogspot.ie:
… In this talk, Goodall has her ubiquitous "Mr. H." monkey doll sitting on the lectern, and she's brought a piece of Nelson Mandela's Robben Island prison wall to make a point about the importance of hope. But even more memorable are her dynamic "sound" props. There's the haunting tinkle of the bell made from a Cambodian landmine, which brings the audience to silence. And then there's her pant-hoot chimpanzee greeting, which brings the audience to laughter. ...
Act 5, Scene 1, Hamlet [V]
Perhaps the most famous theatrical prop of all time: poor Yorick's skull. The skull is a memento mori, a reminder that all ambition is worthless is in the end. We will all die. The skull prop creates the context for the bloodbath that follows and ends the play.
This video is from a 1969 performance with the wonderful Ian Richardson in the title role, and a certain Star Trek captain as Horatio.
Ten Tips for Using Props in a Presentation
This is a practical checklist for using a prop in a conference talk scenario. This blog post also includes sample talks for each item on the checklist, so doubles-up as a list of great talks to learn from.
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