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February 21, 2005
Make Your Handouts Worth Keeping

If your handouts are "throwaways," you're doing something wrong. Presentation expert Marie Wallace says, "Too many presenters treat handouts like an afterthought, 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." But when done correctly, handouts can serve a number of useful purposes. They can:

  • Support and reinforce your basic message
  • Provide supplemental information not included in your verbal presentation
  • Keep your audience's attention on the subject matter
  • Create an overall positive impression of you and your mastery of the topic

Choose the type of handout that fits your goals. Plan your handouts just as you would plan your presentation and determine what you want them to achieve. For instance, if you want to reinforce your main presentation points, the handout should include a simple, bold summary of your message. On the other hand, you may want to convey additional detailed information about the topic that can't be given in your verbal presentation; in that case, the handout might be a reprint of an article on the subject or a listing and short description of resources the audience can explore for further information. As a third example, you may want to provide handouts that illustrate your message, such as a copy of an actual MSDS if you are covering MSDSs in general or a hazardous chemical in particular. The point is to make sure that your handouts complement and supplement your presentation so that your audience comes away with a better, clearer understanding of your points.

Make handouts easy on your audience.

Why It Matters...
  • Up to 90 percent of spoken information is forgotten within 24 hours, so written handouts are an important way to keep key information available to your audience.
  • People process written information two to three times faster than spoken information. Handouts will help an audience understand the message more quickly.
  • The quality of your handouts send a message to your audience about your credibility and professionalism.

Handouts need to be well designed if you want them to be kept, read, and used--they should make it easy for the reader to comprehend the information. Design tips from presentation experts include:

  • Use plenty of white space so that the message appears clearly--don't clutter up a handout with a wall of fine print.
  • Use a large, bold typeface that is easy to read.
  • Bullets are preferable to long narrative sentences.
  • Use illustrations, photos, graphs, and charts whenever they support your message.
  • Use color--it increases the willingness to read--but don't go overboard with too many colors or elaborate graphics, as these can be distracting.
  • Don't use photocopies that are faded, smudged, or distorted--people don't want to make the effort to read them.
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