The storytelling power of props

“Show don’t tell” is one of the most important phrases in storytelling. A phrase my clients hear me passionately repeat. And for good reason. It’s easy to “tell people” what you are capable of, it’s quite another to show them you actually can. In the showing is action. Quoting Socrates, “Say what the story demands…the story demands action.” Not much needs to be said when there is something to be seen.

Years ago, when I was involved in some of the early Microsoft technology stories (Windows ’95), my colleagues and I developed a hands-on approach to how we spoke to audiences who were not at all tech-savvy; people who had almost no experience with computing (and that included me!). The tech story was intimidating – and indeed, for many, rather boring. How motivated are we to listen to something we can’t relate to? Exactly! Quoting my favourite SpeakingEnergy soundbite: We have to relate to participate.  To do this in Singapore in 1995, a country now well known for global tech leadership (and yes, humbly stated, I believe that myself and my Microsoft colleagues, among them, Darren, Ben, Dave, Gim-Mui and Marcus, helped contribute to that leadership growth), we rolled out the software and the hardware for everyone to try.  Local partners in retail throughout the country (and later throughout Southeast Asia), became our storytelling partners. We were truly showing not just telling how technology can transform lives. We created curiosity, confidence, and trust. In that order.

The software and other fascinating things inside our creatively designed demonstration zones served as practical and inspiring “props”: movable property (the prop) that could be seen, touched, and tried in order to put our audience “in the story.”  They became part of the “story scene.” We were not just telling them to buy…we were showing them why and how they might want to consider exploring the story for themselves.  I watched so many people’s lives change at Funan Centre in Singapore from 1995 onward because of our ground-breaking Microsoft Retail Centres. Knowing what we have today, the story of what we did in Funan naturally sounds rather archaic. Technology growth needed a starting point, though, touching and trying the software, the props, created that powerful story access point.

Any business can use a prop. Today, I work closely on storytelling strategies with some of the world’s largest finance and legal companies. Plenty of props inside their stories. And, just like in the days of Windows ’95, I am seeing my clients transform stories because of how the prop puts their clients in the story scene.  A massive energy change occurs. Stuck for an idea on what to use as a prop?  Try this simple guideline: a prop is anything that is not shown on a screen. It may have a screen, of course, but it must be a “live” piece of property that sets the stage for the story to grow.  And grow it will. If it worked for Socrates 2500 years ago…it will work for you. Get creative with your props…there are no rules to showing not telling!


A short interview I had on AM Singapore in 1995. One for the archives. Fun to see how the tech story was back then (CD-ROMs!) – and how I attempted to explain the internet…humbling to watch! Look how astonishingly low those household PC numbers in Singapore were!

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