Notes from the Tech Trenches: Spicy Handouts for Tastier Training

Cindy Carlson is the Electronic Resources Librarian at Fried Frank Harris Shriver & Jacobson LLP in Washington, D.C., a web committee member for the Law Librarian’s Society of Washington, D.C., and organizer of its Legal Research Training Focus Group.


I do a ton of training: secondary sources, case research, regulatory research, legal research strategy, Lexis and Westlaw policy overviews, practice area training, cost effective research, basic Internet searching, using advanced Internet search features, business research. I also create a ton of handouts. I try to make them fun, but it's definitely a bigger challenge for me to make them visually interesting, useful and memorable than it is for me to come up with the content. Don't get me wrong -- I work hard on the content, and I know it's good. But my handouts are, well, dry. And boring looking. And while they are good for referring back to later when my trainees have questions, they aren't actually very useful in class except when people want to make notes in the margins. Now this pains me for several reasons. One, I'm a very visually-oriented person. I got my undergraduate degree in studio fine arts. I know my handouts are not pretty. Worse, I put a good bit of work into them, but they are not doing their job. They aren't helping my trainees learn.

Then, this past fall, a librarian at another firm here in D.C., Alea Henle, asked me to help with a presentation she was thinking about doing for the AALL annual conference this year in Boston. She had been thinking about how there were probably many  useful tidbits or unique approaches to doing things that everyone would benefit from if they could be shared, but that, unfortunately, wouldn't justify a full program slot at the conference. Well, she came up with a very interesting solution. She decided to do a poster-based presentation. One or two posters per topic on everything from keeping statistics to reference request sheets and training curriculums to library marketing. Great! I was happy to oblige, I had loads of material that would make great content. So, we met with a small group of other librarians, hashed out who would be responsible for what and set our deadlines. We also agreed that we would try to keep things simple by all using a template document that Alea had created in Microsoft Word as a basis for our posters. We were all to keep to an eight and a half by eleven page, and the posters would simply be blown up to full size at printing time. Alea cautioned us to view our work at 500% so that we'd know if, for instance, a screen shot we were using wasn't the correct resolution and would be illegible at full size.

I was so excited, I got back to my office after that lunch and I pulled together the content for 4 out of 5 of my posters. Hurray! And then I choked. I had no idea what to do next to make it "poster-like." Not a clue. Finally, I submitted the first of my pitiful attempts to Alea, and she very kindly mentioned that it might be a little text-heavy. Diplomatically, she suggested that I might try using some tables or text boxes to create some variety on the page for a little extra interest. Now, text is not innately bad, but a little more variety on the page can really add appeal as well as help you look sophisticated and capable as a presenter.

So, I took Alea's constructive criticism and thought. I'd used tables before, loads of times. For Excel files, mainly. Lists with lots of data elements. Or for figures. Not so much for their visual interest. I thought I could use tables more as she had suggested, though it would force me to rethink how I presented my information. Text boxes, on the other hand, were foreign to me. Ok, don't laugh. Some of us don't know about text boxes. Or those little pointers (Auto Shapes) that you can employ to indicate and explain an area of text. Or those big, advertising-like fonts with shadows and color variations (Word Art). I had used other graphics (picture files) pretty frequently, especially for our library newsletter, but nothing much else. I could see I wasn't equipped for the job, and I did what I often advise our new associates: If you are working on a project, and you aren't getting anywhere after the first ten minutes, call and ask for help. Word expert to the rescue! I spent about 20 minutes with one of our Information Systems specialists and had the crash course on Word graphics.

Talk about a revelation! Now, Microsoft Word certainly isn't the ultimate in graphic design tools (and I can hear all you graphics people crying in the background, not to mention all of you who are saying, no, MACs are so much better for that!). Let's face it. Most of us in the working world are using Word, for better or worse, and most of us don't have the option to go farther afield for graphics software. If it's what you've got, at least take advantage of what it offers. So, if you haven't done it already, consult your Word expert. If you are on your own or are uncomfortable about asking for help, experiment with the drop down menu under Insert, especially the Picture and Text Box options where you'll find most of what in Word are called the drawing tools. You might also want to read some online tutorials. I found a few on the Web that seemed straightforward and helpful, though not necessarily pretty in themselves:

Then take one of your plain vanilla handouts and use what you learn. If you are a PowerPoint devotee, similar features are available for it as well, and of course we've all seen what can be done with a Web page.

So, stretch out of your usual text-based mode, poke around a little and learn about the graphics features available with your word processing package. Spice up those handouts! Give them the visual interest to match your terrific content and your trainees will benefit. Handouts that are well formatted, interesting to look at and easy to read can catch your trainee attention and help the information you want to communicate to them stick in their brains. For more on creating handouts that are worth keeping, read Why and How to Avoid Trashy Handouts by Marie Wallace, from the LLRX Guide on the Side archive.