The Debate Over Presentation Handouts

Like the Hatfields and the McCoys, many people in the presentation world have been feuding for years. The debate? What to do about presentation handouts. One side says they are helpful to the audience, while the other side says they are distracting. Let’s dig a little deeper into the debate surrounding presentation handouts.


You’ve probably been to a presentation where the speaker distributes a handout before he starts speaking. He does so because he believes the handout will be helpful to his audience. As it turns out, research shows that it probably will be.

In a study published in Applied Cognitive Psychology, researchers tested both the desires of the audience and the information they were able to retain. They divided the students into three groups: students who were provided no handout, students who were provided a handout with slide notes before the lecture, and students who were provided a handout with slide notes after the lecture. They had the students listen to a 12-minute lecture and then gave them a test over the material. Interestingly, the researchers found no difference in test scores between the three groups. However, “the student verdict was clear: 74 percent said they preferred to be given slide handouts prior to the lecture, the most commonly cited reason being that having the handouts helps with note-taking.”

So it appears that handouts could be desirable for audience members who want to write less and listen more. If your handout is simple and well-designed, it could function as a tool to foster goodwill between you and your audience. It probably won’t lead to an increase in learning or recall, but it will keep your audience from having to work as hard, which will make them happy.


Those on the other side of the fence say speakers should avoid using handouts. They fear that if the audience has a handout, they’ll read instead of listen. This means the speaker can become subordinate, distracting, or even obsolete. Corporate presentation coach and author Jerry Weissman calls this Presentation-as-Document Syndrome. We find this syndrome wherever speakers neglect to distinguish the differences between a presentation and a handout. In his book, Presenting to Win: The Art of Telling Your Story, Weissman says this happens when “the presenter uses the graphics as both a display and as a record, as both show and tell.” He goes on to say that whenever a presentation is trying to accomplish more than one purpose, it becomes ineffective.

If a speaker simply takes whatever will be in his notes and puts it onto the screen, or takes what is on the screen and dumps it into a handout, the audience will be bombarded by the same message in 3 formats. On the other hand, if there are words coming out of the speaker’s mouth, displayed on the screen, and printed on the handout, and they are all different, you can imagine the frustration and confusion of the audience. They wonder, “Where do I place my attention?” Information that is repetitive can insult the audience. Information that competes for attention can confuse them.  If you don’t have time to properly prepare a handout that helps the audience, it’s probably better not to use one at all. If you choose not to use a handout during the presentation, you might consider another tactic. Make handouts available after the presentation at a booth or table or directly from you as a way to engage audience members more personally following the presentation.

Middle Ground

My goal here is not to align with either the Hatfields or the McCoys. I find merit and reason on both sides of the fence. The debate over presentation handouts all boils down to what the speaker determines is best for his or her audience given each particular situation. If you choose to use a handout, design it well and make sure it is a useful tool for your audience. If you need help with document design, check out the design services available at Ethos3. If you decide not to use a handout, make sure to engage your audience with a powerful presentation, and be mindful of the work the audience puts in to take notes.

Overall, remember that a presentation is about communication. No one style or rule fits every situation, every speaker, every message, or every audience. A good speaker is always working to make educated decisions about how to best relay his message for his audience. Sometimes that will involve a handout, sometimes it won’t.

Want to make more educated decisions as a speaker? Register for our online presentation skills course, and learn proven methods used by some of the best in the world.

The post The Debate Over Presentation Handouts appeared first on Presentation Mentor.

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