The Presentation Handout… NOT your slides

by Oliver Adria on 08/03/2009

why_handouts_are_awesome_backgroundThe handout is an amazing thing. It frees your mind, it (can) improve your slides, it makes your audience happy! How so, you ask? Well, writing a handout with the main points of your talk summarized in one page, including references (and maybe links to further reading material) and your contact data relieves you of the necessity of writing down everything on your slides. So your presentations are de-cluttered and you don’t have to have that much “stuff” and text on your slides. And should it accidentally happen that you forgot to say something during the presentation… hey – it’s in the handout!

The audience will be happy, because they don’t have to write stuff down while you are talking (true multitasking is a myth , in case you don’t know it yet). They can pay full attention to what you’re saying. And should they have questions a week after the presentation, your contact details are on the handout.

A great side-effect of having handouts is that when you are writing it, it forces you to structure your presentation and what you’re going to say. Since it will be about one page long, you will also need to prioritize what you want to include and what you think is necessary and what is unnecessary. In a way it’s sort of like writing a cheat sheet for a test – you have to decide, what are the most important things that you need to know, what can I leave out? And I’ve heard that many people actually learned a lot about the material for the exam while writing their cheat sheet. And eventually didn’t use the cheat sheet.

The handout – what should it look like?

So, how should the handout look like? It should be preferably 1 page long (up to 3 pages is still ok, but shorter is better, otherwise people won’t bother reading) and it should describe what you have talked about in the presentation. It can also include graphics if you deem it relevant; maybe a key image from the presentation slides is a good idea – people will then remember your presentation when looking at that image.

What NOT to do: It is currently quite popular to hand out the slides as a handout, causing a symptom of what many people call the “slideument” – an attempt to kill two birds with one stone. But in the end, you hurt both birds, but they still fly away (actually, I wouldn’t really want to kill them, I’m mostly vegetarian). The slides are neither a visual aid for your presentation (too much text), nor are they a good readable document (too unstructured). Even if you include your notes in the slides printout, they’re still quite ineffective. So avoid the slideument. Take 20 minutes (or more) to write down the key messages onto one page.

Short note: Some people ask me when to give the handouts – before or after the presentation. My advice: You should ALWAYS give it AFTER the presentation. Why should a listener bother with the presentation if they have the summary in front of them? They won’t pay much attention to you anymore and start to Twitter with their Blackberries and iPhones (“Sitting in presentation, planning vacation to Chicago. Is it really that windy down there?”). But you should definitely tell the people at the beginning of your talk that they needn’t write everything down, that they can fully focus on you, the presenter, and that at the end of the presentation you will give them a summary of what has been talked about including your contact details.

So, next time you do a presentation, write a handout for your listeners. You’ll be happy, the audience will be happy. Give it a try.

If you want to read more on creating handouts, read my post entitled How to Write a Presentation Handout – 5 Effective Ideas.

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