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Guide on the Side - Why and How to Avoid Trashy Handouts

By Marie Wallace, Published on April 30, 1999

(Archived June 1, 1999)


Marie Wallace has enjoyed a fulfilling career as a librarian, beginning in 1951 in academia with the University of California and transitioning in 1971 into the private law library world until her 1995 retirement from O'Melveny & Myers. She is the 1997 recipient of the American Association of Law Libraries' highest honor, the Marian Gould Gallagher Distinguished Service Award. Throughout her professional life, Marie has been a guiding force in the Southern California Association of Law Libraries, Practising Law Institute's programs for law librarians and Teaching Legal Research in Private Law Libraries (TRIPLL).

Today, Marie has commenced on a new path she terms "Life in Progress," which enables her to pursue a diversity of interests as a master swimmer, law librarian, trainer, storyboarder and designer of wearable art. She continues to be a dynamic speaker and prolific writer on such topics as private law library management, presentations and training. She is a member of Toastmasters Internationaland is active with the American Society for Training Development (ASTD) and in continuing education for private law librarians. She devotes her "free" time to various non-profit and civic activities. Always open to new ideas, Marie can be reached at: ax852@lafn.org.

Too many presenters treat handouts like an afterthought or even forget them altogether, justifying their action with "They will just get trashed anyway."  That kind of thinking becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. When handouts are not designed well, they do get trashed. By contrast, quality handouts are used and ensure that your presentation is remembered favorably.

Why Good Handouts Stay out of the Trash

  • People tend to forget almost 90% of everything that is said to them in 24 hours. Handouts help people to recall and apply the details that tend to ebb away with time. The scenario plays out like this. "The speaker said xxx could be done but I forgot how." To the rescue, a laminated job aid passed out as handout.
  • The mind processes new information at different speeds depending on the medium.
    • Speakers speak at 120 - 180 wpm
    • Readers read at 250 - 1,000 wpm
    • People think at 1,200 - 18,000 wpm

    Some 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. The spoken word makes a connection and tells a story. 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.

Why poor handouts get tossed.

They fail to:

  • Support the purpose of the presentation (to persuade, inform, enable or entertain).
  • Be an integral part of the presentation.
  • Look inviting (cheap paper, shoddy reproduction, cluttered).
  • 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.
Basic principles of good handout design
  • Plan your handout as you plan your presentation.

    Keep main ideas, metaphors and summary information in the presentation. Add details, complexity, explanations and applications in the handout.

  • Make them aesthetically pleasing and practical.

    Tad Simons gives a handy tip in Presentations magazine (Feb. 99, p. 47): distribute the handout in a pre-labeled file folder ready to file in the appropriate file drawer.

  • Design to support the purpose of your presentation and the audience.

    The one exception is the entertaining speech which usually do not require handouts. If you do use them, use them to add to the humor.

  • Avoid rehashing your presentation verbatim, with the exception of testifying before a government agency or presenting a scientific paper, when you do want to make available an exact transcript of your remarks.

Handout formats fall into two categories. Pick the type that best supports your objective.

  • Reiterative (know more)
    • Outline
    • Article
    • Fact or data sheet
    • Bibliography
    • Report or white paper
    • Biographical sketch of presenter
    • Case study
    • Copy of the visuals used
  • Interactive (do more)
    • Job aids
    • Worksheets
    • Checklists
    • Pathfinders and guides
    • Decision trees
    • Flow charts
    • Diagram and tables
    • Action plans
    • Annotated list of pertinent Web sites

Design features to make handouts useful

  • Strong title
  • Clear uncluttered layout
  • Inviting graphics
  • Bullets rather than narrative sentences
  • Graphics instead of words to simplify
  • 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 read the text above graphics.

Examples of handouts to accompany different types of presentations.

  • Speech to inform the audience of a proposed major change in the tax law.
    Handout options include:

    Outline of content
    Relevant text of key provisions of the proposed law
    Detailed comparison with existing law
    Chart showing economic/demographic impact
    Pro and con articles
    Bibliography of where to obtain more information
    Who to contact to voice your support or opposition.

  • Speech to persuade the audience to sign up for seminar on the new tax law.
    Handout options include:

    Self administered quiz to assess present level of knowledge
    Testimonials from prior trainees
    Data sheet and statistics
    Highlights of specific topics to be covered
    Schedule of seminars
    Sign up form
    Fact sheet on training time, place, and directions
    Qualifications of the trainer(s).

  • Speech to enable (train) the audience to advise clients on the new tax law.
    Handout options include:

    Workbook
    Job aids
    Decision tree
    Forms
    Glossary of new tax terms
    Conversion tables
    Chronology of effective dates
    Pathfinder
    List of hard copy and electronic research resources
    Directory of pertinent related personnel.

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.

Hand out the handouts as the audience arrives to

  • Let the audience know what is in it for them
  • Overcome participant skepticism
  • Encourage audience to think about the topic
  • Let them know your agenda
  • Stimulate trust
  • Give the early birds a preview of the worm.

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.