Most presenters at most presentations give handouts to the audience. Most audiences either throw them away or file them in an obscure location where they couldn't find them even if they wanted to...which they generally don't.
So why are we, as presenters, so committed to sending our audiences home, laden with paper?
I think it's just become a habit. Somewhere in the foggy past, some audience somewhere asked a presenter if she had any of her presentation written down so they didn't have to take notes. And the presentation handout was born.
Now I'm not suggesting that every handout is a useless piece of stuff. But I am suggesting that, somewhere along the way, we've lost our common sense about when a handout is helpful and what makes it helpful. We copy our slides in all their bullet point glory, several to a page to save paper and time, resulting in type so small no ordinary human can read it. Or we reproduce our entire presentation, leaving the audience to sort out the salient bits they might want to keep.
Before you fall into these habits, ask yourself whether the audience even needs a handout. Depending on the subject matter and the make-up of the audience, a handout may be wasted time, energy and trees. For example, if you're giving an inspirational presentation, you want the audience to connect with you and absorb what you're saying at an emotional level. If you're successful, handouts may not be necessary to help people remember what you said. Or if everyone in your audience has laptops and takes notes during the presentation, there may be no real value in providing a handout. Just emphasize your key points as you make them so the note-takers are sure to capture them.
So do handouts have any value?
Designed thoughtfully, with the audience's perspective in mind, handouts can help make your presentation more memorable, more focused and more useful. Here are some suggestions:
1. Be clear on what key points from your presentation you want your audience to remember. Since determining this is part of initially scoping out your presentation, you should already have these points firmly in mind.
2. Use a Word document to capture the key points, adding any relevant supporting data, resources and references. Create this information in a way that stands on its own, so if the handout gets passed around to someone who wasn't at your presentation, it will still make sense.
3. Avoid having copies of your slides stand in for handouts. If your slides are good -- visually impactful and designed to further explain your verbal points -- they won't make any sense in isolation. If they're not good -- text-heavy with bullet point after bullet point -- no one will be able to read them.
4. Keep the handout to 3-5 pages to force yourself to be clear and concise and to make it more likely the audience will read it.
5. Depending on the information you're providing, consider using a non-standard size/format for easier accessibility and memorability -- for example, a laminated bookmark, colored paper or a comb-bound booklet.
Yes, this approach is a bit more work than simply copying your slides and it requires that you allocate some time during your preparation phase to do a professional job on the handout. So if you're tempted to say, "But I don't have time to do anything extra," stop and ask yourself what is the purpose of your presentation.
Is it to minimize the work you need to do or is it to move your audience to agreement and action? I'm guessing it's the latter.
Here are some additional tips for creating effective handouts from Olivia Mitchell, plus some excellent points about why handouts can be an integral part of any presentation. Also, Phil Waknell at the blog PhilPresents has a brilliant post on Handouts 101.