by Steve Adubato, PhD

Recently Jim, a middle manager, was asked to give a presentation to other members of his team regarding a new project he was working on. Jim was asked to present an update on where things stood and identify areas where his colleagues could provide valuable feedback.

The first thing he did was distribute a thick handout with lots of detailed information about the project. There were numerous charts and graphs along with about 20 pages of text. Within 30 seconds of Jim’s presentation, half of the 10 other managers started thumbing through the handout. This clearly distracted Jim and from that point on he had a really difficult time getting the audience’s full attention.

Some might think the moral of this communication story is that when making a presentation you should never distribute handouts. Well, it’s not that simple. With this in mind, consider some tips and tools as well as some pros and cons when it comes to handouts and your next presentation:

  • If you are going to use a handout, never distribute something that is more than just a few pages. There is too much to thumb through. The best handouts are a page or two with bulleted, boldly typed information with key points, themes, statistics or questions. It is really a basic outline for your audience to follow.
  • Your job is to fill in the white space in between the bulleted points on the handout. The more you read verbatim what you’ve handed out, the more you invite your audience to ignore you and become obsessed with what is on the printed page.
  • Only provide a handout if it really enhances or supports your presentation. Don’t do it just to do it, because even the best handout will be somewhat of a distraction. Remember, while your audience is reading the handout, you’ve lost eye contact with them. So pick your spots.
  • Make sure your handouts are practical and can be utilized by your audience AFTER your presentation. One of the handouts I use in a typical communications seminar is titled “Top 10 Keys to Making a Great Presentation.” It’s a simple list of ten practical tools. There is no detailed explanation, but it is helpful to audience members who want to remember the points raised in the actual presentation and share it with other colleagues in the workplace.
  • Another option is to distribute the handout AFTER the presentation. Tell folks you will be providing that material to them to reinforce the messages communicated in your presentation. This is helpful because many professionals don’t take a presentation seriously unless there is some piece of paper they can take away from it. That’s just human nature.