Handouts 101

Slides do not make good handouts.

I like good slides, and I like good handouts, just as I like crunchy apples and juicy strawberries. Yet just as I would never confuse an apple with a strawberry, I would also never confuse a slide with a handout.

The majority of presentations sadly use ‘slideuments’ (I believe this term was coined by Garr Reynolds) which aim to be both a visual aid (‘slide’) and a handout (‘document’). You know the kind – the presenter crams lots of detail and bullets on the slide so that somebody who didn’t attend the presentation could understand it afterwards. The slideset is provided in hard-copy or via email later. Of course, it makes for a terrible visual aid – in fact such a slideument actually hinders communication – and it’s not much use as a document either, because you can’t truly understand what someone means just by reading a short bullet-point or trying to draw conclusions from a table of data.

So if you have created a slideument, it’s a bad set of slides and it’s also a bad handout.

If on the other hand you know that people can’t read while listening, and you understand what makes a good set of visual aids (few words, meaningful images, etc.), you’ll quickly realise that just providing those slides as handouts won’t help much either. Sure, after a couple of days, the audience will be able to look at the slides and remember quite well what you were talking about while that slide was on the wall (far better than with a set of bullets), but who looks at handouts only a day or two after the event? You need something which stands on its own – and which can then also help people who missed the presentation.

What kind of handout?

So we’ve established that if you’re going to give handouts (and in many circumstances, I recommend that you do), a simple printout or soft-copy of your slides won’t be sufficient. What should you do?

My usual recommendation is to spend time in advance producing detailed notes on what you are going to talk about, and put them in the Notes pages of your Keynote or Powerpoint slides. This has a number of advantages:

  • You can then print your presentation with notes pages to PDF and share the PDF. You will simply have a set of A4/letter pages, each with a slide at the top and the notes underneath.
  • By including your slides with the notes, the reader who was there has a visual cue which will bring back the memory of the talk, the presenter and the feeling in the room at the time.
  • By going through your presentation in detail and working out what you will say, not just the highest-level details, you will be better able to anticipate how the presentation will flow, realise how you could improve the structure, and make those changes in advance.
  • Furthermore, you will be sure that you know your subject well, and having typed all the detailed notes, you will be far less likely to forget what you need to say next while on stage, and consequently less nervous and more natural.

There are times when the notes pages are too restrictive, and where you need to give out detailed tables or graphs for example (which you cannot put in these notes pages in the slideware apps). There is an alternative: export them to a word processor. In Powerpoint 2010, you can use the Create Handouts feature, which will create a Word document with one slide at the top of each page together with any notes you have already entered into Powerpoint. You can then use all the rich text features of Word to add additional tables, graphs etc.

It’s not quite so straightforward with Keynote, although I find the easiest way is to export the file as HTML and open it in Word, or to export the slides as images and then import them one by one into Word or Pages.

As an aside, there may be times during your presentation when you need to refer to detailed graphs, reports or tables. I recommend that you should not try to put these on your slide, or at least, not the full details. It is better to distribute one or two pages on paper and refer to them, and use the slides (if at all) only to illustrate the main points and conclusions. If you don’t need your slides, use a black slide until you need something else on the wall.

When should you provide your handouts?

There has been some debate about this recently on Olivia Mitchell’s blog (which by the way contains some more great tips on handouts). My own view is that if you can possibly get away with it, provide the handouts at the end of the presentation, or even a few days later. I’ll explain why in a moment, but first, to be fair, here are some counter-arguments which people may give.

  • It’s better for people to have the slides so they can take their own notes. I disagree – unless your slides are slideuments and you don’t plan on giving handouts. If your handouts are good enough, most people won’t need to take many notes, if any, and if you tell them at the start that they will get detailed handouts at the end so they can put their pens (and laptops) down, the audience will relax and be able to enjoy your presentation without having to worry that they might miss something important. By all means provide paper so they can take notes if they want, of course. You could even provide sheets which simply include some of your key headings – if it’s clear from the start that you are going to cover three subjects, then you could provide a page with the three subjects to structure the notes.
  • It puts decision-making in the hands of the audience member. To not give them the handout before the presentation smacks of “I know better than you, what suits you”. This was one of Olivia’s arguments (see her blog post here). My own view is that if you ensure they have paper, potentially with a list of headings as in point 1 above, then you are giving them the choice to take notes or not.
  • I’ve tried and failed to find a suitable third argument. Perhaps you could help me?

Now, here are the reasons why it’s good to give your handouts after your presentation.

  • It makes a refreshing change. Students and businesspeople are extremely tired of receiving poorly-prepared presentations, where they know they will need to pay constant attention despite the boredom, and where they know their final recollection will depend on how good their notes are. They often wonder: “If this idiot can say all this to us, why can’t he just spend the time writing it down instead of expecting us to write it down and miss most of it?” If a presenter is just going to talk at the audience in radio-mode, then frankly the audience would be far better off with the full transcript than with their own scribbled notes, and they gain little or nothing from having seen some guy read it aloud. Why do companies and schools persist in thinking this is a good mode of communication? It beats me! Therefore if you tell the audience at the start that you will give them a full set of notes afterwards, so they can concentrate on you and your subject in a proper connected communication session, they will thank you, and they will actually learn more because they are truly listening, not just trying to transcribe.
  • Taking notes isn’t the same as understanding. I admit that I rarely take many notes, either in business or academic presentations. This is because I realised that when I did take notes feverishly, I was merely transcribing what was said: it was going in one ear, and down my arm onto the page, without actually making it into my short-term memory, let alone my long-term memory. So I ended up with a page of scribble, but no clue about what had actually been said. What’s the point in that?
  • To understand, you need to think. Confucius said: “I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand.” If you have 50 people in your audience, there are limited things you can have them actually do – although there are quite a few if you think hard enough. However, you need to take them beyond just hearing what you say. You need them to internalize your message, to think about it, to work out what it means to them and how it fits into their reality, and to accept it into their reality. (Search for ‘reality tunnel’ or ‘reticular activating filter’ to understand why – I won’t go into all the science here.) If they are feverishly taking notes, they are not truly thinking about what you are saying, and they will not internalize it. Remove the need for them to take notes, and they will listen more intently; give them a chance to think deeply about what you are saying, and they will truly get the message.
  • Keep the element of surprise. I like to build questions and small exercises into my presentations, to get the audience involved and thinking. If I were to distribute my handouts at the start, then either the participants would have the answers and debriefs in front of them, which would destroy the exercises, or the handouts would be missing a valuable part of the presentation. However, if I distribute the handouts afterwards, I can include all the answers, details and debriefs so they are useful reminders without spoiling anything. Furthermore, if people don’t know what’s coming next, there is always an element of surprise. I lost count of the times when as an audience member I received ‘slideument’ handouts at the start, and had read through them all within 5-10 minutes of the start and thereafter switched off completely. When you go to see a film at the cinema, do they give you a full run-down of the plot before the film begins? Of course not. There’s a reason for that.
  • Allow for changes. If my audience allows it (some business schools do not, sadly), I will aim to provide handouts not immediately afterwards, but a few days afterwards. This gives me a chance to modify the handouts to take account of what actually happened during the presentation, rather than what I intended to happen. I can therefore include answers to questions which were asked, more details on a subject which was of particular interest to that audience, and interesting links or book references which I hadn’t thought to include but which occurred to me while on the stage.

There are more reasons to give handouts a few days afterwards, and my experience fully supports the arguments expounded by Adam Lawrence on Olivia’s blog, which I reproduce here for your convenience with due thanks to both Adam and Olivia:

  • It doesn’t get lost in the pile of mostly useless paperwork from that conference day or whatever;
  • It serves to refresh the memory of the session just at the moment it would otherwise be forgotten (ie a few days later); and
  • As said, it reflects the true content, not the planned content.

To recap therefore:

  1. Slides don’t make good handouts. Use the Notes pages to provide detailed notes with your slides.
  2. Tell your audience you’ll give them detailed notes, so they can truly engage with you and your message.
  3. If you need to go through a detailed topic, by all means hand out one or two sheets of paper during your talk – it’s better for them to read a table or graph on paper than to try to work it out on a slide with tiny text or a lot of detail.
  4. Give your complete handouts afterwards – and if possible, a few days afterwards.

I’d love to hear your thoughts and experience about handouts in different situations. What has worked well (or not so well) for you?

12 Responses to Handouts 101

  1. Phil,

    Brilliant coverage of the issue of handouts and some great advice. Bravo! It should be mandatory reading for every presenter. I’m off to tweet your post.


  2. Thanks for the quote and the mention! This was a great article.

    Comedian and presenter

  3. I agree.

    Thanks for this clear vision.

    I feel that my clients more and more understand this process.

    Sander, The Netherlands
    Presentation Coach

  4. […] Waknell has written an excellent blog post detailing his reasons for distributing handouts after a presentation (it has also many other excellent […]

  5. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Olivia Mitchell, Phil Waknell. Phil Waknell said: RT @OliviaMitchell: The argument for distributing handouts after the presentation very well-made by @philpresents http://bit.ly/cB9iFQ […]

  6. […] Waknell follows up with another perspective on handouts. In particular, he advocates giving out the handouts at the […]

  7. I’m with you on all of this. 🙂

  8. Jon Thomas says:


    Fantastic post. Thanks for taking the time to go so far in depth. This is a common mistake many presenters make and conference organizers demand!

    Death to the Slideument!!

    Jon Thomas
    Presentation Advisors

  9. Les Posen says:

    Great advice. But, oh gee, sometimes when I read comments on presentation blogs, I get the feeling there are more presentation coaches and advisors than there are presenters! Must be a mood thing… Back to the Keynote drawing board.

  10. Estefani martínez says:

    Hello Phill. I agree with you about sending the handouts few days later emphasizing in the questions people asked. But, how do I send that handouts? By mail? or with a letter? I was doing it by mail but I just read an article TEDChris http://tedchris.posterous.com/help-create-an-email-charter, and it says to avoid sending emails with too much information and you know that answer to audience´s questions might take long… what might be a good idea, sending as a letter??? what do you suggest? THX

    • Phil Waknell says:

      Hello Estefani,

      Thanks for your comment and question. The way I tend to send things is by sending a short email, with a URL link to my handout file, which I have shared via a web service (either on my web site, or on MobileMe). I rather like the MobileMe option because the link can expire, and I can tell people that – which gives them a reason to download the file quickly, and not just file the email away in case they need it later.

      The file is a PDF which includes the slides I used (visual memory cues) together with my detailed notes from the seminar, since the slides alone aren’t enough. I edit those notes each time to reflect the questions that were asked and the discussions we had. And the fact I share a URL has two advantages:

      1. I don’t have to worry too much about the file size, whereas if you are sending email attachments, anything over 1Mb may be stopped by some corporate email filters. Of course it’s important to keep files to a manageable size, but where I have 130 slides with many pictures, each with their notes, it’s hard to keep to 3Mb without compromising too much on image quality.

      2. I don’t fill up people’s email inboxes with unnecessary attachments. That all takes extra disk space and slows down email clients.

      I’m with Chris on the email charter, and I believe my approach is compatible with that. If people do download and read the notes, that’s outside of email, and unlike email, it’s something they should spend time doing. If you’re going to spend time attending a lecture, training course or presentation, you should also plan to spend time afterwards to review what you heard/learnt and make sure it sticks.

      I hope that helps – thanks for reading and happy presenting!


  11. […] there are exceptions. For instance, Phil Waknell suggested the great idea of creating a handout of just your 3 main points, with space between them where your […]

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