PowerPoint Tip: Presentation Handouts: Yes or No, What Kind, and When?

There are different answers to this question but there is none that is suitable to all situations.

I recommend that you not provide just a print out of the slides. If you’re using slides properly, as a visual aide, you won’t most of what you say on the slides, so images of the slides won’t help people much. An exception would be a handout with space for people to take notes next to each slide. Then, they can write down your points.

Let’s discuss several situations and see what might work best in each one.

In-house business presentation

If you are presenting a proposal or reporting on a project to seek approval inside your organization, there might be these scenarios:

• You are giving a presentation that has no technical data: A handout is not needed in this situation but if you want to use one, distribute it after the presentation and make sure that your talking points are included-not just the slides.

• You are giving a presentation that has technical data that your audience needs to read for a successful presentation. Create handouts that contain just the data your audience needs to look at up close. Distribute them when they first need to see them.

While many people recommend giving out handouts at the start of the presentation, my experience, both as a presenter and as a member of the audience, is that this usually is disastrous. Why? Because people read the handouts while you are talking and don’t listen to you. Some people say that if the audience is motivated enough to listen, they will. Maybe that has been true in the past, but in this multitasking age, few people have the attention control to not read the handouts.

Others say that, you aren’t interesting if the audience isn’t listening to you. I think, as a presenter, that’s a high expectation for you in an everyday business setting.

Sales presentation

If possible, try to give your potential customers the handout after the presentation. Again, an exception would be if you need to present detailed data or description. However, if they ask for the handout in advance, you can’t say no, so I would just ask for their full attention. A sales presentation should certainly be engaging enough to keep your audience’s attention. You could provide two handouts-one with just the data needed during the presentation and another as a leave-behind.

Training presentation

Training presentations have a whole different set of considerations. If you want your audience to take notes, slides with space for taking notes can be helpful. But be careful; as a reader of this blog wrote me, it “ruins the anticipation of learning, causes distraction (flipping ahead) and can defeat the purpose of attending (to some extent).” If you give out all the information up front, people will feel that they don’t need to stay. After all, they have the notes. It’s like a college course that is based solely on the textbook; student will cut class.

In the academic arena, a great deal of research has been done on how to increase learning by students. For example, a 2009 study at Western Michigan University looked at handout out a combination of visuals (such as slides), a detailed outline, and blanks for students to take notes. This system resulted in better short-term recall than when the students took notes on their own paper or didn’t take notes at all. (Research has also shown that students miss a lot of important points when they take notes on their own.)

I always warn people against transferring academic research to the business arena, especially if your goal isn’t to get your trainees to do well on a test. If you’re training customer service reps to provide better service, short-term recall is not your main goal. You want people to think, right? And then transfer what they learned into action.

Interestingly, when tests involve analysis and synthesis of ideas, having the instructor’s notes does not result in higher grades. In my opinion, most situations, business training fits into this situation.

Conference or seminar presentation

Presentations that you deliver at a conference or seminar (sometimes called “ballroom presentations”) are a different. Sometimes, people expect it to be entertaining. Often, the content is not very technical. In these situations, I recommend not to provide handouts during the presentation. People will definitely skim them while you’re talking. They’re more likely to walk out if what they read doesn’t sound interesting. (Your presentation will probably be a lot more interesting than the handout!)

There’s a trend for providing handouts only electronically, because it saves paper, and therefore, trees.