In his book “Why Bad Presentations Happen to Good Causes,” my friend Andy Goodman outlines one simple rule about handouts: Don’t distribute them until you're done or until they are needed for a specific part of the presentation.
Passing out a stack of material before your performance will ensure only one thing: a large percentage of the crowd will NOT be paying attention to you. They will read ahead. They will find all of your well-planned jokes. They’ll use the handout to gauge how much longer you’re going to talk. None of this helps you.
Alas, even Microsoft’s PowerPoint web page recommends post-show distribution.
Building on Andy’s sage advice, I’ll offer a few more thoughts about how to use handouts.
First, I think it’s useful to think about handouts as reinforcement of your presentation, not a reproduction of it. For this reason alone, I think Microsoft should eliminate the “print handout” option or at the very least, rename it “print boring, ineffective handouts.”
Because slides are supposed to “reinforce” your verbal presentation, a print out of them shouldn’t be very helpful to an audience who hasn’t seen you present it. (If it were, why did you bother showing up? You could have just sent a memo.)
Unless a thorough recap is necessary, I encourage clients and colleagues to identify the one or two things that the audience HAS TO LEARN OR REMEMBER in order to consider the presentation a success and then design a simple handout that reinforces those points.
Consider these simple examples.
1. My colleagues at Environmental Defense had a rather robust presentation about energy consumption in Texas. Lots of charts and data. But there’s one chart that sums up the organization’s opinion about Texas energy. So we created a simple one page handout that explains that chart in great detail.
2. If you’ve seen Al Gore’s 300-slide “An Inconvenient Truth” presentation, you know it’s heavy on science about the global warming problem and light on solutions. So when I began giving the presentation in my community, I figured that people didn't need a handout that recaps the presentation (they can rent the movie). A simple one-page handout about “what you can do” seemed to be the most helpful leave behind (I print four on a page and cut them into small leaflets). I also hand out copies of a longer report that details the role Texas plays in global warming. But I didn’t create it for the presentation. It’s just a fortunate coincidence that I worked at a place that produces such reports.
3. Sometimes, however, a more robust recap is necessary. When I present Andy Goodman’s “Storytelling as Best Practice” workshop, I often leave behind a front-and-back synopsis of what we discussed (see a portion of the first page here ... sorry for the low-resolution). It’s not a word-for-word recap, and you have to have “been there” to remember most of the examples the handout mentions. But it serves as a good reminder for folks who attend the workshop.
None of these examples is the perfect, most beautiful piece. I work on a budget. But all of them provide the audience what it needs or what I want it to have (memory triggers for later, what you can do, more info about a complicated concept) without interrupting the presentation itself.
Amazingly, this approach barely adds any prep time. Here is your chance to give in to your addiction to bullets. Remind the reader what you said, and give him a few bullets that will help him recall your points. Handouts are also a great place to detail source material (New York Times, July 25, 2005 or Science, June 2005) for audiences who require that kind of specificity.
So give it a try with your next presentation. Think about what your viewers really need when they leave the room (or what you want them to have) and give it to them.
Colin Rowan owns Rowan Communication, Inc., an Austin consulting company that helps non-profit organizations hone their messages, tell better stories and build stronger communication plans. He is conducting a one-day training session in Austin (http://budurl.com/rowcomNPACT) that will cover this and other core communication topics on December 10. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.