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PowerPoint handouts: should you use them, and if so, how?

Handouts have often sparked lively debates amongst presenters. Some presenters firmly advocate them, whilst others would never use them under any circumstance. Still more are undecided.

So what are the pros and cons of distributing handouts in a presentation? And if you’re going to use them – how should you do so?

A Definition

By ‘handout’ we mean something printed that is distributed to the audience physically, either just before, during, or just after a presentation. Handouts could be a print-out of PowerPoint slides – but don’t have to be. In fact, as we’ll argue below, we think that handouts should not be print-outs of slides, but that when they are used should be something else entirely.

Why Do Some Presenters Use Handouts?

Post Presentation Recall

Audiences typically lose 75% of information absorbed within 24 hours, and even more over the course of a week. Yet, if the information is reintroduced periodically, this figure can be significantly lowered. Some presenters think that by producing a handout their audience will refresh their own understanding, and have better recall of the information presented.


Certain presenters, for example trainers or university lecturers, frequently provide handouts to encourage note taking. Audience members can supplement basic information on the handouts with notes on the things that are most important to them.

References and Extra Information

It is not always practical to include detailed references in a presentation – the small print may not be readable – but it must be included. A presentation handout is a suitable place to include this. Likewise information that goes into extra detail on certain subjects – allowing the presentation to serve more as an executive summary.

Disadvantages of Distributing Handouts


Any one who reads regularly will know that presenters are fighting a continuous battle for their audience’s attention. Distribute handouts before a presentation, and your audience will be tempted to read them rather than listen to you. You lose any element of surprise. In fact, if they can just get the information from the handouts – why should they listen to you? Why should they even attend?


Many presenters now deliver their presentation, and then print their slides out for the audience, or upload them to sites such as SlideShare to be viewed at a later date. This practice is all that is wrong with presentations. Presenters who design their slides with this function in mind – i.e., to make sense on their own – are not thinking about their live audiences, and are producing disengaging, ineffective presentations – and encouraging others to do the same. As a rule of thumb – if your slides work “as is” as a self-explanatory hand-out, they won’t work well as visual aids for a presenter.

Loss of Control

Handouts can be copied quickly. As soon as you distribute them, you lose control of your information. If you provide a copy of your slides – even printed – you will most-likely find your competitors get hold of them. Just think of a time you got hold of your competitors’ slides… How did that happen, do you suppose?

So, should you use them?

In some situations, handouts can be appropriate. If you want your audience to have information to supplement your information – then by-all-means provide handouts (not slide print-outs) for this purpose. This isn’t about your presentation – more about what doesn’t go into your presentation.

If you want to provide a printed reminder of the material in your presentation, the best place to start would be to make your presentation more memorable in the first place. Can you make your presentation so engaging and memorable that you don’t even need a handout?

Never give a handout of your presentation material unless it is a summary custom-designed for this purpose.

As a more niche use, worksheets in training environments can be a great way of encouraging audiences to engage with your content, and you can even incorporate Visual Cognitive Dissonance by e.g. asking your audience to fill out a diagram. Don’t give away the answers on your worksheets –  but do pose the questions.

If You Must Use Handouts

Never, ever, just print out your slides

If your slides are self-explanatory and are designed to be taken away, the audience will do just that – take them away. Providing them with the information you are delivering means that they don’t have to listen. Slides should be optimally designed to engage the audience in each environment – which means that in a face to face setting, they should not make sense without the presenter.

After the presentation

Giving out handouts during a presentation will encourage your audience to read ahead while you’re presenting. Distribute your custom-designed handouts afterwards, and audience members can go through what interests them in their own time. A handout is a document – remember that PowerPoint isn’t the best tool for producing a document. Use a more suitable package instead.

On-Demand Presentations

Sending an on-demand presentation is the best alternative to handouts – but we don’t just mean upload your slides to SlideShare. Use a proper presentation platform or video, with specifically designed, narrated content that audiences will be happy to watch. Your audience get to view engaging slides (they don’t make sense without a presenter), but with narration to help explain the material. They are able to watch when they want to.

This is a more effective, engaging way of delivering your content, which will yield far better results.

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