Trump and Spicer: How to Misuse Presentation Props

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Trump and Spicer: How to Misuse Presentation Props

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Props are a great presentation tool.

Both Donald Trump and Sean Spicer recently used props in presentations. Donald Trump’s prop was probably effective, at least among his supporters.  But in my opinion it was misleading and therefore not honest.  We don’t want to be dishonest in our presentations, or sales processes even unintentionally.

I believe Sean Spicer’s use of a prop was both misleading and ineffective.  It’s unlikely he intended either of those results.

Props can help a presentation in several ways:

  1. They can make a point concrete.
  2. They can have an emotional impact.
  3. They can be effective metaphors.
  4. They can inject humour into a presentation.
  5. They focus the audience’s attention and interest.
  6. They are memorable.

(Manner of Speaking)

My favourite presentation skills vendor is Corporate Visions.  In their list of top five selling techniques that work, here’s number 5:

  1. Using 3D Props (Corporate Visions)

There are many ways to tell a story. But one extremely effective – and underutilized – technique is to use 3D props. Props break the pattern of what’s expected – and can make the prospect sit up and pay attention. Props make a metaphor or analogy tangible. Props create a physical reminder and can continue selling even when you’ve left the room.


Mr. Trump

trump guests


In President Trump’s speech to congress on February 28, he effectively used a powerful 3D prop – People.

Four of Mr. Trump’s guests were family members of people who, authorities said, were killed by immigrants living in the United States illegally.

Regardless of the fact that immigrants are statistically less likely to commit crimes than native-born Americans (Pérez-Peña, 2017), no families of people killed by Americans were guests.  If they had been, their numbers would have been proportionately much greater than Mr. and Mrs. Trump’s chosen guests.  Now this can be taken as a political opinion; but here it’s meant as an evaluation of a powerful presentation tool – props.

When you use props in your presentations, you will naturally use those that are likely to be most effective.  That just makes sense.  And from Trump’s perspective, his props (guests) probably did just that.  But I believe it gave an inaccurate visual to the audience.

Was Mr. Trump’s use of a prop inaccurate to the point of misleading?  And how dangerous can that be?

Well, there’s the possibility of hate being generated against immigrants.  Fear is a powerful motivator, as is a ‘common enemy’.  The presentation of these guests as props could contribute to a view of immigrants as the enemy, and potentially even hate crimes.  Mr. Trump would not have intended that.

Even if a prop is accidentally inaccurate, the results can be significant.  The poor use of a 2D visual aid, or prop may have had a significant causal effect on the Challenger disaster.  Information designer Edward Tufte has claimed that the Challenger accident is an example of the problems that can occur from the lack of clarity in the presentation of information.

The Space Shuttle Challenger disaster occurred on January 28, 1986, when the NASA Space Shuttle orbiter Challenger (OV-099) (mission STS-51-L) broke apart 73 seconds into its flight,
leading to the deaths of its seven crew members, which included five NASA 
astronauts and two Payload Specialists. (from Wikipedia).

From Tog on Software Design

The Challenger: An Information Disaster:

Why did the space shuttle Challenger explode? Many people assume it was because of poorly-functioning O rings on the booster rocket. However, those O rings didn’t send that ship up on a cold winter’s morn.
People did, and those people drew their most critical information from two simple charts, screened by an overhead projector.
The graphs displayed tiny pictures of each shuttle booster, lined up in chronological order, showing launch temperatures and any O ring damage.

challenger1 challenger2

They looked like so many crayons in a box, and when the engineers and managers finished looking at them, they didn’t know any more than they had before.
The launch was made and seven people died.

Per Tufte, if the engineers’ presentation charts had been done a different way, the Challenger would not have been sent up and the disaster would never have occurred.  That’s a pretty serious result of a poorly chosen or presented prop (the charts).  A chart is a 2D prop and Trump used 3D, but points out the importance of what people see during our presentations.

So, whether our presentation tools present inaccurate facts deliberately or by accident, it is incumbent on us when we present to be accurate and ethical.  The effectiveness of a very good prop doesn’t always make it the right tool.


Spicer’s Healthcare Props



Mr. Spicer used a tall stack of papers and short stack of papers to illustrate why the Republican replacement of the Affordable Care Act is better.  Because of the size of the document.  Not only did reports of the press briefing ridicule this as a measure of value (Jimmy Kimmel On Sean Spicer Health Care Pitch: “It’s Like He’s Writing Melissa McCarthy’s Sketches”)  the Republican policy is a work in progress (Rascoe, New York Times).  So, one could expect that stack of papers to grow as well.  That hurt Mr. Spicer’s credibility.  Credibility is critical in firmly anchoring a presentation’s message.

Mr. Spicer also used a guest as a prop; but in that case the prop was most likely effective.  Secretary of Health and Human Services seems a strong voice for healthcare.  So not all bad.

But the stack-of-papers prop just wasn’t convincing; and eroded Mr. Spicer’s credibility.  We don’t want either of those things to happen in our business presentations.


How to Effectively Use Props in Your Presentations

Often, you can skip the PowerPoint presentation (What?!!!) and use only stories and props, or visual aids.

When you’re using a 2D or 3D prop, choose wisely.  A prop should be relevant to your presentation or conversation.

Sometimes that gets a little creative.  One of my favourite uses of props was in a software sales presentation and demo.  Throughout the presentation the sales team used Easy as Pie as a theme, or recurrent phrase to anchor their message.  At the end of the presentation, they placed several fresh apple pies on the boardroom table, and served them to the audience.  The audience loved it! And they remembered the Easy as Pie presentation.

The Best Props Make the Message Clear

You don’t always have to be super creative with your props.  Something that shows visually what you’re talking about is powerful.  Years ago, I worked with a smart, successful man who was a truly terrible presenter.  He made me think of Dean Martin or some other ‘drunk’ making a presentation.  He wasn’t inebriated – he just sounded that way and was as coherent as drunks usually are.  We took a presentation skills course that included the use of 3D props.  Shortly after that, Jim had to make a presentation about his product line – Plasticizers.  A plasticizer is a chemical substance which when added to a material, usually a plastic, makes it flexible, resilient and easier to handle.  Not a fascinating topic.  And he wanted to talk about the use of plasticizers in cars.  Not an easy prop to bring to a meeting.

But he actually brought a car bumper.  That was close to 20 years ago and I still remember how easy it was to understand how plasticizers can be useful.  Because of the prop.

A Prop is a Visual Aid.  Don’t Forget 2D Props

Go ahead and use PowerPoint.  Used correctly it can be effective and interesting.  But also use 2D props – Pictures, Chart, Videos.  Visual messages are more quickly understood and remembered longer.  The use of visuals can break up a presentation so your audience remains alert.  A sleepy audience is never a good audience.

Use the Right Number

Too many props can be distracting.  Too many 3D props can be hard to manage, so you become more involved in handling your props than in getting your message across.  No props can result in a boring presentation that isn’t clear; but that doesn’t mean you always need them.  So, consider your message, your audience and your total presentation.  When needed, go to a prop.  When not useful, don’t.

Practice! Practice! Practice!

You must be very comfortable with your prop, including 2D.  Charts must be accurate, videos must work.  And you have to be able to properly handle and use any 3D prop you have.  Even if it’s people, you should practice introducing them, pointing to them or bringing them up on stage.  When the Easy as Pie team did their presentation, they rehearsed getting the pies into the room unseen, and the best way to bring them out and serve them.

Be Confident

You use props all the time already.  Have you ever lined up glasses to explain a point at dinner?  You were using props.  So, know you can use this tool and go for it.

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