13 Best Practice Tips for Effective Presentation Handouts

Your presentation handout is the lasting concrete manifestation of your presentation. It’s an important part of the total experience for the audience:

Total presentation experience

But most of us focus on preparing what happens during the presentation, not what happens afterwards. Here are the benefits of having handouts:

Benefits for the presenter

  1. They allow you to cut down on the amount of material you cover in your presentation and so not commit information overload.
  2. They allow you to stop worrying about forgetting what you want to say.
  3. Audience members will have a concrete reminder making your presentation more memorable.
  4. Audience members can easily contact you later.

Benefits for audience members

  1. They allow audience members to relax about having to note down what you’re saying.
  2. If they like taking notes, they’ve got a place to do it.
  3. If they’re inspired by your topic, they’ve got more information on it.
  4. If they want to refresh themselves later on what you covered they’ve got a place to go.

Tips for Presentation Handouts

1. Prepare your handouts in plenty of time

Don’t leave it till the last moment to create your handout. I’ve been guilty of this. We’re most concerned about the actual presentation and not making a fool of ourselves up on the stage so you work on what you’re going to say and the slides, and then 30 mins before your presentation you realise you should have a handout and hurriedly put something together. Handouts are much too important to be relegated to an afterthought.

2. Don’t just print out your slides

This is lazy and not effective. If your slides are bullet-point slides (not recommended) then they will often be cut-down sentences which will no longer make sense to the reader a week later. And if they are visual slides (recommended) then they’re also unlikely to make sense without additional text. If you’re presenting with visual PowerPoint slides, one of the easiest ways of creating a handout is to type the text of the handout in the “Notes” pane of the PowerPoint edit screen. Then print your slides as “Notes”. You’ll have an effective handout.

3. Ensure your handout reflects your presentation

An audience member should be able to relate the handout to the presentation they’ve just attended. If you use the Notes pane of PowerPoint as I’ve suggested above this will happen naturally as you’ll be guided by the visuals you’re using in the presentation. You handout should have the same title as your presentation and should follow the same structure so that audience members can easily find the information they want.

4. Add more information

Presentations are not a good format for transferring a lot of information. However, they are good for inspiring people to find out more about a topic. That extra information can be in the handout. And if you’re the sort of person who wants to tell the audience everything you know about the topic… you can put it in the handout.

5. Include references

If you’re citing research do include the references in the handout. For most presentations (scientific presentations to a scientific audience would be an exception), don’t clutter up your presentation or your slides with references. But do be able to say: “The reference for this research is in your handout.” Let your audience know where they can find out more: books, websites, blogs etc.

6. Consider creating an action sheet

Handouts are a great place to help people put ideas from your presentation into action. You could either list a series of actions that people can take, or provide a worksheet that people fill in on what actions they will take as a result of your presentation. Have people fill in the action sheet near the end of your presentation.

7. Make your handout stand-alone

The handout may be passed onto people who were not at your presentation. Or an audience member may look at it a year from now when they’ve forgotten most of your presentation. Make sure that it will make sense to them. For people who weren’t present include brief credibility-establishing information about you.

8. Provide white space

Some people like to take notes during a presentation. Provide plenty of white space (or even some blank pages at the back) so that they can take notes on the handout and so keep all the information related to your presentation in one place.

9. Make your handout look professional

The handout is the concrete reminder of your presentation. It may also get passed onto other people who were not at your presentation. So it should enhance the perception people have of you:

  • Have someone proofread it
  • Create a consistent look and feel with your brand (this may include a logo and colors)

10. Consider what additional resources you can provide for your audience

You’re not limited to paper. My bioethics teacher friend who presents at bioethics and education conferences across the globe provides each of her attendees with a DVD with lesson plans and resources.

11. Consider creating a webpage

Cliff Atkinson suggests creating a “home page” for your presentation in his book The Backchannel. If you don’t have a website, you could create a squidoo lens or a Facebook Fan page. Or if you’d like to do more than that, create a wiki website (try pbworks or wikispaces) or use blog software. Both of these can be done for free and just a little technical courage (techphobics shouldn’t try this). All of these options allow readers to comment on what you’ve written, so it’s a great way of continuing the conversation with audience members. For instance, audience members can ask you questions they weren’t able to ask at the time.

If you decide to go the web way, you can cut down the hard copy handout to one page with the most important points from your presentation, your contact details and the web address.

12. Distribute the handout at the beginning of your presentation

This is a perennial topic of debate amongst presenters. Some people are concerned that if they distribute the handout first, people will stop listening and start leafing through it. The problem here is not the handout, it’s that your presentation is not engaging enough.

Not distributing it till after the presentation suggests that you think you know best how people should pay attention to your information. Let your audience decide for themselves.

Recent research suggests that providing handouts to university students before the lecture does not harm their learning.

Update: In the comments to this post, Cathy Moore, Mike Slater and Adam Lawrence have identified three good reasons for distributing your handout after your presentation. I’ve highlighted these reasons in a new post: Three good reasons to distribute your handout after your presentation.

13. Do tell people if it’s not in the handout

Finally, if you go off on a tangent in reply to a question, do let them know that the answer is not in the handout.

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