Creating Quality Handouts

by Speaking Tips | December 29, 2003

Too many presenters treat handouts like an afterthought or simply forget about them altogether in the expectation that they will just get trashed anyway. When handouts are poorly designed, they will very likely be discarded. By contrast, quality handouts are used and ensure that your presentation is remembered favorably.

Why Handouts?

Our minds processes new information at different speeds depending on the medium. In general, we think at much faster speeds than we process written information. Similarly, we read at faster speeds than we process spoken information.

You may ask why bother to speak at all when people can read so much faster? The answer is that presenters convey much more than words when they speak and more readily connect emotionally with an audience than via writing. Text supports and expands ideas with details and applications. Graphics (charts, tables, diagrams, maps) complement both your presentations and handouts because they format information for rapid assimilation.

Handouts enable presenters to

  • Create a positive impression before the presentation begins
  • Ensure that the audience takes away the key ideas as intended
  • Engage people at a deeper level as they interact with the handout
  • Keep the audience's attention focused on the subject
  • Satisfy the needs of visual learners
  • Introduce experiential material for kinesthetic learners
  • Present information at both novice and expert levels
  • Simplify and navigate complex information
  • Establish credibility
  • Present more information than can be covered in the presentation
  • Summarize and review.

Handouts enable the audience to

  • Concentrate on the ideas without having to take notes
  • Capture any non-verbal data accurately
  • Personalize the presentation with notes of their own ideas
  • Hear, see and apply the presentation
  • Increase their speed of comprehension
  • Retain new ideas longer
  • Apply the information to specific tasks
  • Find the information when they need it at a later date.

Experts tell us that people generally forget almost 90% of everything that is said to them within 24 hours. Handouts help your audience to both recall and apply the details that tend to fade away with time.

As we've already mentioned, your handout should be an integral part of your presentation. Consequently, you should plan your handout as you plan your presentation. Keep your main ideas, metaphors and summary information in the presentation and add details, complexity, explanations and applications in the handout. A good handout should:

  • Support the purpose of the presentation.
  • Be an integral part of the presentation.
  • Support the audience's future use of the presentation.
  • Package the information from the perspective of the audience or user.
  • Sift and focus the information.

Make sure your handouts are both visually pleasing and practical. Design to support the purpose of your presentation and the audience. The following design features make for handouts which will both please the eye and make information stand out quickly.

  • Strong title
  • Clear uncluttered layout
  • Inviting graphics instead of words to simplify
  • Bullets rather than narrative sentences (avoid rehashing your presentation verbatim)
  • No more than two fonts in a document
  • Bold, italics or underlining to focus attention but never all three at once
  • White space to help the eye to search for and find information
  • A logo or a look to connect the document with the presentation
  • Your name and the date to provide attribution
  • Color to increase willingness to read as much as 80%
  • Graphics go above the text as the eye is drawn naturally to visuals first (readers tend not to read the text above graphics).

Handout formats generally fall into one of two categories: Reiterative and Interactive. You should choose the type which best supports the objectives of your presentation. A reiterative handout restates your material and includes items such as a presentation outline, fact and data sheets, case studies, articles and white papers, charts, copy of visuals used, bibliography. An interactive handout encourages assimilation of your material via hands-on activcities and includes items such as worksheets, checklists, pathfinders and guides, decision trees, flow charts, diagrams and tables, action plans.


Pass out the handouts as the audience arrives. This will help the audience comprehend how your presentation will benefit them, give them a preview of your topic and agenda and encourage them to begin to think about the issues and points you will raise. Again, quality handouts create good impressions. Getting them into your audience's hands early will help overcame any participant skepticism and begin to establish trust.

If you catch yourself saying I don't want to distribute my handout in advance of my presentation because the audience will be reading ahead of what I am saying, go back to the drawing board. Something is wrong with the design of your presentation or handouts. A good handout makes the audience want to pay attention to the speaker.

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