Why You Should Unhand Your Handouts

Aug 20

Your presentation handouts may be doing more harm than good, in a number of ways.

They can be expensive. Each black-and-white page may cost 5-10 cents. Each color page may cost 25 cents to $1. Have a 20-page copy of your PowerPoint presentation? Expect 50 people to attend, but want 100 copies to be on the safe side? That could easily cost over $100.

The ink is the biggest cost, but don’t forget all that paper waste as well! It looks environmentally irresponsible… not a good thing if you’re presenting yourself as someone efficient or forward-thinking.

What about the effect those handouts have on your audience? They need that information at their fingertips, right?

Think about it. What do you do when you attend a lecture and the speaker gives out large, complicated handouts?

If you’re like most people, you spend the speech flipping through the handout instead of paying attention to the speaker. Reading ahead, doodling, distracting yourself. If you’re like me at a conference with speakers on multiple tracks, you glance through the handout, determine there’s nothing you can learn by listening that isn’t already in the handout, and leave to attend a different speech running at the same time.

How many times have you taken a handout home… and actually referred to it later? Probably not many.

There are multiple solutions to this problem, fortunately.

You could use virtual handouts. This can be useful if you want something interactive or want to provide information-heavy resources that you don’t want people digging through during the speech. Those who want more information can then pull up pages and pages online (and photos, audio, video…) and you don’t have to print a single page.

You could rely on your presentation equipment and not use handouts at all. If you have the slides on the screen and they’re clearly visible to everyone in the audience, then why do you need handouts with the exact same information? If your points are not simple, clear and easily readable on the screen—then correcting that is a higher priority than the handouts.

You could give out handouts at the end instead of the beginning. If the handout is merely reference material to remind them or give them extra information, then do they really need to be focusing on it when you’re trying to talk to them?

Fill-in-the-blank handouts or very short handouts are another way to go. Instead of a 10-page booklet with every word you have to say, you could hand out one sheet with your contact information and main bullet points (just 1-4 words each). This can help them keep track of where you are and to not lose the points you make, but with only a handful of words on the page there’s little to distract them… and of course, you have to print that much less.

If you want to give people more information afterwards, instead of compiling handouts so thick they should be in hardcover, why not use a sign-up sheet? Building an email list is an important marketing tool, you can send them links to as much information as you like, they will have an easy way to contact you, and they will be reminded of you and your message when you contact them.

Also bear in mind that handouts can be a nuisance. They may not print correctly, they might get damaged or lost or out of order or you may not have enough for your audience—so much can go wrong. If your presentation depends heavily on your handouts, you’re introducing a big risk there. The handouts should supplement your presentation, not replace it.

So again, when it comes to handouts, try at least some of these steps:

  1. Eliminate it
  2. Condense it
  3. Make it electronic
  4. Don’t give it out beforehand

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