Presentation Hack: Slides vs Handout

When I attend a presentation and get handed the projected slides as a handout, I cringe. Is the presenter lazy? Disinterested? Thoughtless? Ignorant? Unaware?

Sure, PowerPoint has a quick feature to print various handouts from the slide deck. Most popular seems to be the format of three (3) slides alongside conveniently lined space for notes. But with a little additional effort, we can do so much better!

Projected slides provide for visual supplement or "eye candy" to your presentation. They serve as a backdrop to set the tone, emotion, or setting of a story, concept, stance, or idea. I've long recommended a Spartan design philosophy - where photos, logos, or diagrams are simple, clear, large, and void of large blocks of text. I'm even against most uses of bullet points, except for those most brief, bare, and significant. Your charts and graphs should be of such simple design that you could recreate them with chalk on a blackboard in front of your audience (Think: How would I do this if the electricity went out?) Overall, your projected slides should be designed in such a manner that they would be relatively useless without you!

Handouts provide a physical or digital product for an attendee to take away from your presentation. This is the opportunity for you to provide more complete datasets, graphics, lists, charts, descriptions, citations, sources, references, and links. Handouts should be one step closer to being useful without you - as in someone who did not attend your session should be able to reasonably understand what your message was. As handouts are more robust in information, they may or may not resemble the projected slides.

Workbooks are a subset of handouts. They tend to be paper, but can be digital depending on tech skills of audience. They are generally meant to be used during a presentation or workshop, as opposed to purely a guide to be referenced afterwards. My workbooks provide ample blank white spaces for audience members to doodle, take notes, draw connections, and free form their thoughts, questions, or ideas. Workbook pages should have some sort of template or framework for attendees to focus their thoughts on the particular topic or idea. As additional space should be available, workbooks may or may not resemble the projected slides.

Let me offer some examples between projected slides and handouts/workbooks: 

The above cluster includes:
  • a projected slide, used as textless background imagery/analogy;
  • a digital handout page, referencing the same imagery, a short explanation, and a link to a blog. (I've also used QR-codes on printed handouts that link to blogposts, research, articles, books, or videos.)
  • a paper workbook page, for attendees to take notes (in this case: during specific group work time).

The three (3) distinct designs are tied together by the same imagery, but serve distinct purposes.

In this above side-by-side, the projected slide contains four (4) bullet(-less) points. I include the cover of the book to appropriately give credit to the authors and the program from which the concept is taken. The workbook has blank spaces to take notes. For this particular topic, I give students several minutes to populate the four (4) boxes on the workbook page in preparation for larger group discussion. I've included several subtle prompts or questions in one of the boxes to remind students what they should include.

For the above side-by-side, the "slide" is often not a slide...but rather my own drawing on a board. The design is simple and completed in a few seconds. The accompanying workbook page uses the same terminology and allows for students to draw pictures, take notes, make lists, describe behaviors, and to be used in other individual and/or group activities. In this activity, we collectively populate the board with the ideas they've come up with.

This last cluster includes two (2) options for a projected slide. I appreciate that not every presenter buys into the minimalist philosophy. Bullet points, groupings, and lists do serve a purpose. For one, they remind the presenter of the material when s/he is not completely comfortable with it. (Yes, it pains me to say that!) But bullet points can also link the content with the workbook or other in this case above...or serve as somewhat of a table of contents. (Just curious: Which of the projected slide options resonates more with you?) 

So to wrap things up, projected slides and handouts have distinct purposes. As such, they should be designed with their intent in mind. Creating different slide decks, saving to .PDF formats, and adding more files to your computer can seem burdensome. But your attendees will have a better learning experience for it. Do it for them. 

Now webinars are something altogether different. I'll leave discussing them for another time...


Aside from writing on a variety of topics, I publish a column of blog posts under the label Presentation Hack. Check them out for ideas, tips, and tricks to better public speaking experiences!


Lou Hayes, Jr. is a police training unit supervisor in suburban Chicago. He studies human performance & decision-making, creativity, emotional intelligence, and adaptability. Follow Lou on Twitter at @LouHayesJr or on LinkedInHe also maintains a LinkedIn page for The Illinois Model.


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