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Good Handouts

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 does 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.


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