Props Can Help a Message Sink In, or Sink the Message

On Oct. 26, two days before he became Twitter’s new owner and CEO, Elon Musk demonstrated the communications power of a good prop when he strode into the company’s headquarters carrying a porcelain sink and wearing a grin. The prop suggested Musk would remake the company, throwing everything at it, including the kitchen sink. He later tweeted a video of his entrance with the caption: “Entering Twitter HQ — let that sink in!

Some types of props always help to communicate a message. When I was director of media relations in the Reagan White House in 1983 and 1984, the correspondence unit had a standing assignment to find letters the president could use to help illustrate issues of interest.

If he wanted to discuss the importance of holding a job to help someone get off welfare, for example, President Reagan would reach into his breast pocket and pull out a letter. “I just got this letter from a lady in Sacramento…” Then he would read the letter, sharing her story of how having a job changed her perspective.

Props can also help executives who are, let’s say, a bit challenged in the humor department. One client of ours is frequently asked what trends he predicts. The company’s legal staff frowns on speculation, but for the executive to repeatedly say, “We don’t speculate” sounds stuffy.

Our solution was for the executive to become adept at playing with a Magic 8 Ball, the toy you shake to reveal an “answer” in a small screen on the bottom. Ask the ball whether interest rates will continue to climb and its answer might be: “Yes and No.” The executive could then discuss different possible scenarios for the future that are not definitive or mutually exclusive.

A good prop can also help set up a speech and introduce a theme. In his last Ted Talk, the Swedish physician and intellectual Hans Rosling placed a blue, plastic storage bin from IKEA on a table. He said the box represented the industrialized world in 1960, which then had a population of 1 billion people.

Rosling then brought out two green plastic bins and set them a distance apart from the blue bin. The green bins represented the developing world, which at the time was home to an additional 2 billion people.

The gap on the table between the blue bin that represented the West and the two green bins that represented the developing world symbolized the discrepancy in living standards for the two populations, he said. From within the bins, we withdrew additional props to make his points.

Taking a model Volvo from the blue bin that represented the West, he noted that people in the industrialized world were healthy, educated, rich, had small families and aspired to buy cars.

By comparison, the average family in the developing world in 1960 aspired to have food for the day, he said. Pulling rubber flip-flops from one of the green bins, he said people in the developing world saved to buy a pair of shoes.

Rosling told his audience that it was time to update the linguistic taxonomy of how we talk about the West and the developing world. Taxonomy might sound like a dull subject, but the audience was hooked and eagerly awaited the next prop he would remove from the bins.

Choose props carefully.

A prop can also backfire. When then-U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell spoke at the United Nations on Feb. 5, 2003, he held up a small vial to illustrate the amount of material that could be used to make weapons of mass destruction in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. A Reuters photo of Powell holding the vial appeared on the front pages of newspapers across the country and still comes up in Google searches.

Powell’s U.N. speech and the picture of the vial would become emblematic of a failure in U.S. intelligence when purported stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq were used to justify the American invasion but then never found. Powell’s reputation — which had been stellar until then — was damaged, along with our international credibility.

How will Musk’s kitchen-sink prop be remembered? For now, it showed he was serious, despite the apparent jocularity of the moment. After acquiring the company, he immediately fired Twitter’s top management and announced a series of actions, including creating a council of content advisers.

Public reaction to Musk’s purchase of Twitter has been swift and polarized. Conservatives generally applaud his promise to bring free speech to Twitter, while voices on the left predict an explosion of hate speech on the platform. (In the tweet to advertisers that he shared publicly, Musk said Twitter cannot become “a free-for-all hellscape” and that the platform “must be warm and welcoming to all.”)

Some speculated that Musk’s prop meant that everything except the kitchen sink would now be allowed on Twitter. One thing is certain: Whatever happens to Twitter, Musk’s actions will be visually defined by the picture of him entering the building with the white porcelain sink. The challenge of using props to communicate a point is to choose them strategically.

The wrong prop sends the wrong message — one that becomes indelible. However, done right, props can captivate an audience.


Merrie Spaeth was President Reagan’s director of media relations and now leads a team of communications consultants as president of Spaeth Communications, Inc., in Dallas. She is a thought leader in communication theory, executive training and coaching. Reach her at mspaeth@spaethcom.com.

[Photo credit: @elonmusk]

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