Article Category: Ask Six Minutes, Speaker Habits

When is the Best Time to Distribute Handouts?

This article is part of the 12 Days of Ask Six Minutes.
This event is over now, but you can send your questions anytime.

Imagine that you’ve spent weeks preparing your presentation supporting the construction of a new community center. You’ve got wonderfully persuasive material, and you’ve prepared a concise 1-page handout summarizing your arguments.

The only thing you didn’t plan was when to distribute the handout. At the beginning? At the end? In the middle? Or does it matter?

Kevin Wortman writes:

A vexing issue for presentations seems to frequently center on whether to hand out hard copy materials before or after the presentation. Even Toastmasters have expressed a desire to have materials at the start of a presentation to help them understand the subject, however, we know the danger of distraction for hard copy materials in-hand during a presentation. So is it simply situation specific or is there a general rule to follow regarding hard copy information hand-outs prior to or after a presentation? Thanks.

In this article, we will examine the timing of giving handouts to your audience and how it impacts your presentation.

Rule of Thumb: Distribute Handouts at the End

It’s generally to your advantage to distribute handouts at the end of your presentation.

Benefits include:

  • You make it clear that the handout is meant to be taken away. There’s no guarantee that your handout doesn’t end up in the recycling bin, but your aim is give it a chance to survive as long as possible, carrying your message with it.
  • If you plan to hand it out at the end, you will be more likely to make it a useful summary document (as opposed to making it a less useful transcript of your presentation).
  • Your audience will not be distracted reading it during your presentation, when you need their eyes and attention with you.
  • Your delivery can retain suspense, surprises, and case studies (which might otherwise be hinted at or spoiled by the handout).
  • It is symbolic of giving a gift to the audience to thank them for their attention.
  • There will be less rustling of papers to distract both you and your audience.

Let your audience know early on that you’ve prepared a handout, and that you’ll be distributing it at the end. For some, this will free them from feeling they need to take notes.

Why Should You Distribute a Handout at the Start?

You may feel pressure from audience members to distribute the handout early so they can understand the subject. If this is necessary, however, it is a often symptom of a poorly crafted speech introduction and structure.

Between the speaker introduction, the introduction of the speech itself, and introductory slides, there is ample opportunity to establish the context, provide a roadmap, and nurture understanding. Then, as long as the presentation is designed sensibly using a logical framework, you can build on that early understanding right on through to your conclusion. You should not need a paper artifact in your audience’s hands to do this for you. Indeed, if your presentation is engaging enough, your audience won’t pay any attention to a piece of paper in their hand.

Though it is tempting to lazily give in to audience demand to produce a handout at the start, the negatives outweigh the positives… most of the time.

Having said that, there are several cases when it is advantageous to distribute a handout early in your presentation. These include the following scenarios:

  • Your presentation is very long, such as a full-day or half-day course. It is sensible to distribute course materials early, and refer to them as necessary.
  • Your presentation focuses on a highly technical, detail-oriented review (e.g. a proposal review). When every word is critical, you want to put those words into the hands of your audience. Reading them from paper will produce far less fatigue than reading from the screen would.
  • You have some content which is far too dense to be readable in slides, but which you want to talk about (e.g. a large table of data). Beware that you don’t ask your audience to absorb voluminous data during the presentation. One way to handle this is: “Please turn to the green sheet we distributed at the start for a moment. This is a reference sheet for you to take home, but I’d like to draw your attention to two of the numbers as an example…
  • Your handout is not a summary document, but rather material for exercises to complete in session. Handing these out early prevents the disruption which would occur in the middle of your presentation in trying to distribute copies throughout the room. This includes sparsely printed pages (perhaps with only headings that you’ll be covering) into which your audience can take notes.

What about the handouts of my PowerPoint slides? Shouldn’t I hand those out at the beginning?

In most cases, I urge you not to print out copies of your PowerPoint slides at all. Doing so gives the very false impression that your slides are your presentation, when they are only visual aids. These printouts are too small to read, void of any animation or progressive builds, and are a very poor substitute for a handout. Often, these get tossed in the recycle bin immediately, and rightfully so.

If you absolutely must print copies, then do that in addition to creating a useful summary handout.

How do you create a useful summary handout? Well, that’s a topic for a future article…

Your Turn: What’s Your Opinion?

How do you handle distribution of handouts when you speak? When you are attending a presentation by someone else, what do you prefer?

This is one of many public speaking articles featured on Six Minutes.
Subscribe to Six Minutes for free to receive future articles.