Should you give out handouts? If so, what kind and when?
I’ve read a lot of answers to these questions, but the more I think about it, the more I realize that there is no one answer that fits all situations.
It’s clear to me that you shouldn’t provide just a print out of the slides. If you’re using the Tell ‘n’ ShowSM Method, you won’t have a lot of what you say on the slides, so images of the slides won’t help people much later. An exception would be a handout with lots of space for people to take notes next to each slide. Then, they can write down what you’re saying.
Let’s discuss several situations and see what might work best in each situation. I invite your comments on this topic.
In-house business presentation
You’re giving an in-house presentation to get approval for a proposal or report on a project. Let’s take a couple of scenarios:
- Your presentation doesn’t have any technical data: I don’t see the need for a handout in this situation, but if you want to use one, give it out after the presentation, making sure that your talking points are included–not just the slides.
- Your presentation has technical data that your audience needs to read for the presentation to be a success: Create handouts that contain just the data your audience needs to look at up close. Give them out when they first need to see them.
While some people recommend giving out handouts at the beginning of the presentation, my experience, both as a presenter and as a member of the audience, is that this usually is disastrous. Why? Because people read the handouts while you’re speaking and don’t listen to you. Some people say that if the audience is motivated enough to listen, they will. Maybe that was true once, but in this multitasking age, few people have the attention control to not read the handouts.
Others say that if the audience isn’t listening to you, you aren’t interesting enough. I think that’s a high expectation for you, as a presenter, in an every day business setting.
If possible, I would try to give your potential customers the handout after the presentation. Again, an exception would be if you need to present detailed data or specifications. However, if they ask for the handout in advance, you can’t very well say no, so I would just ask for their attention. A sales presentation should definitely be engaging enough to maintain your audience’s attention. You could provide two handouts–one with just the data for during the presentation and another as a leave-behind.
Training presentations have a whole different set of considerations. Do you want your audience to take notes? If so, slides with space for taking notes can be helpful. But be careful; as a reader of this blog wrote me, it “ruins the anticipation of learning, causes distraction (flipping ahead) and can defeat the purpose of attending (to some extent).” If you give out all the information up front, people will feel that they don’t need to stay. After all, they have the notes. It’s like a college course that is based solely on the textbook; student will cut class.
A great deal of research has been done on how to increase learning by students– in the academic arena. For example, a 2009 study by RB Larsen at Western Michigan University looked at handing out a combination of visuals (such as slides), a detailed outline, and blanks added for students to take notes. This system resulted in better short-term recall than when the students took notes on their own paper or didn’t take notes. (Research has also shown that students miss a lot of important points when they take notes on their own.)
I always caution people against transferring this research to the business arena, especially if your goal isn’t to get your attendees to do well on a test. Some business training situations are similar to academics; others aren’t. If you’re training customer service reps to provide better service, short-term recall is not your main goal. You want people to think, right? And then transfer what they learned into action.
Interestingly, when tests involve analysis and synthesis of ideas, having the instructor’s notes does not result in higher grades. I think that in most situations, business training fits into this situation. You can read an article summarizing much of the academic research here.
Conference or seminar presentation
Presentations that you deliver at a conference or seminar (sometimes called “ballroom presentations”) are a little different. Sometimes, you are expected to be entertaining. Often, the content is not very technical. In these situations, I recommend against providing handouts during the presentation. People will definitely skim them while you’re speaking. They’re more likely to walk out if what they read doesn’t sound interesting. (Your presentation will probably be a lot more interesting than the handout!)
There’s a trend for providing handouts only electronically, because it saves paper, and therefore, trees.
What has your experience been, either as a presenter or as a member of the audience, in these situations? Leave a comment!
I’ve always maintained that a (good) presentation is NOT a handout since the presentation cannot stand by itself without the presenter. A carefully crafted document to accompany the presentation is the best handout, provided to the audience AFTER the presentation. I realize this may not always be practical but is surely worth it for repeated presentations (like sales presentations) or very important briefings. I is also important to remember that the handout is often provided to people who were not present at the “live” presentation, so it should be readable and stand by itself. In a pinch, “speaker notes” can… Read more »
[…] to this important question is discussed by presentation guru, Ellen Finkelstein, in her blog post, Presentation handouts: Yes or no, what kind, and when?. She detailed three most popular kinds of presentation and from there she gives us some […]
A nice post Ellen. I appreciate your willingness to be flexible. My own preference is not to have a handout before or during the presentation, but rather to give a detailed handout afterwards. I tell my audiences up front that there will be notes that go into more detail about the subjects I cover and thus, while they certainly can take notes, they do not have to worry about scribbling every point I make. This results in better attention, retention and participation. However, as you say, there is no “one-size-fits-all” approach. One situation in which I distribute the handout beforehand… Read more »
[…] (This post was inspired by Ellen Finklestein’s post here.) […]
Very helpful post! I wish I had found it about a week ago when I grappled with what to put in the handout and when to give it out. I presented a combination seminar/sales presentation. I opted to give them an outline at the beginning. I did get feedback that they liked having the outline then, adding the notes they thought were pertinent. I personally don’t like when I am required to fill in the blanks. I miss too much and am too distracted finding the right answer. I will definitely refer to this information in the future.