Surviving Handout Hell

The height of my client-visiting season is May through August when I visit or connect remotely with dozens of client sites and meet with many hundreds of people. Almost to a person, the following two statements hold true:

  1. The biggest issue that presentation designers and content creators face is placing too much text on a slide.
  2. The primary reason that people do this is because they are asking their slides to function both as the visual for the presentation and as the printed leave-behind or handout.

The frequency with which this strategy fails is nearly breathtaking. In fact, for the sake of round numbers, let’s just call it 100%. Yes, this will fail every time you attempt it. And you, in turn, will become an epic failure for attempting it.

Let’s make this really simple: a good presentation is identified by three things: what you say, what you show, and what you give. Your ideal is to make each of those as good as possible: You want your words to resonate, your visuals to complement your story, and your handout to provide valuable detail. Too often, however, they all become the same thing: you place all those words on a slide, you then feel compelled to read them (because it is excruciatingly difficult to resist doing so), your audiences receive printouts of slides that recite this same story, and your presentation is deemed something less than a success.

Let’s make this even simpler: don’t do that anymore! Do not design slides as if they are handouts. Do not print your slides and call them handouts. Do not write speeches and project them before your audience just because you think they will make good handouts. Do not do these things.

This topic has gotten tremendous publicity recently when the rock star of our industry, Nancy Duarte, coined the phrase “slidedocs,” and devoted an online book to the subject of using PowerPoint to create documents. To quote the Duarte website, a slidedoc is a “visual document, developed in presentation software, that is intended to be read and referenced instead of projected. Their scannable nature makes them great pre-read, reference, and leave-behind materials.”

All of the attention given to this topic has helped us reach an inescapable conclusion: you must separate the tasks of creating visuals and handouts. You cannot effectively do them with one thing; you must create two things.

When I tell this to a group of people live, you can actually hear the groans. And I understand the specter of what I’m saying here, as I know all about 11th hour crises, crazed bosses, ridiculous deadlines, and the like. But that doesn’t change my advice; in fact, it just makes me more strident about it, because if you suffer through these things, it becomes even more important that you be doing something that you like and that you’re good at. Nobody likes creating slides for double-duty because it is impossible to do. Nobody is any good at it because it is impossible to do.

But as soon as you separate the tasks, you become a different person. When you can deliver yourself from the impossible assignment of double-duty slides, you give yourself an opportunity to think like an effective presentation designer:

What elements do I need to create the best possible visual to complement our story.

Now, let me gather up all of the details and the research that my audience would appreciate reading afterward.

You will become so much better at both of these tasks and your work will become more rewarding. And in the process, you will become a better storyteller and presenter and will distinguish yourself from 99% of the people giving business presentations today.

While yes, I am asking you to do two things instead of one, on July 16, I will show you a technique to enable you to cover off both tasks within the same PowerPoint file. The folks at PresentationXpert are hosting a free webinar on my behalf, where this topic will take center stage. (You can watch the recording of that video here.)

It’s almost scary how close to a panacea this is. I don’t use the word “literally” lightly: if PowerPoint users stopped the practice of creating double-duty slides, it would literally eliminate at least 75% of all incidents of Death by PowerPoint.

So I put it to you: Do you want to make the world a better place? Do you create slides that you then print as handouts? Stop doing that!

7 Comments

  1. Dave Field on Jul 1, 2014 at 12:23 pm

    Exactly right, Rick!

    I tell people that the more complex their presentation is, the fewer people will take it in. You could lose half your audience with slides you have to read to them. Ditto people who see them only as a printout. Let’s see – 50 percent lost each time, so that means that half the people who attend your presentation or read your printouts need not have bothered. Not good.

  2. Rob Reilly on Jul 1, 2014 at 1:26 pm

    Rick,
    Thank you for spreading the word, on this epic topic.

    Instead of producing “slidedocs”, readers can consider add-on documents as potential value-adding vehicles. Depends on the industry, company, and audience, of course, Do your talk supported by great visuals, then give/sell your in-depth content as take-aways, books, guides, workshops, seminars, etc. Lot’s of extra revenue streams, sponsor promo opportunities (without ticking off the conference organizers), and good-will gestures, possible here. The essence of “back of room”.

  3. Olle Bergman on Jul 1, 2014 at 10:44 pm

    I have worked with Swedish organisations where management reports have been replaced by the exchange of ppt documents. Hence, prose has been replaced by fragmented lists of bullet statements, lacking the words that point out relationships, causality etc.

  4. Sheila Lowe on Jul 3, 2014 at 6:55 am

    I publish a newsletter for handwriting analysts, many of whom give lectures. You would have freaked if you’d attended one of the seminars at a conference last year. She had every bit of her speech on her slides, and then she read her 90 minute talk! A friend and I were texting back and forth across the lecture hall—OMG, kill me now! And this year, they’ve given her four hours. I’m not attending.

  5. Jen Singh on Jul 25, 2014 at 12:06 pm

    Did PresentationXpert archive that webinar? I missed it live and would like to view it…

  6. Rick Altman on Jul 27, 2014 at 10:34 pm

    Here you go, Jen:

  7. Craig Hadden (@RemotePoss) on Aug 2, 2016 at 5:06 pm

    Well said Rick! In fact I’d go even further and say the failure rate isn’t just nearly breathtaking, it’s stunning.

    As you say, taking handout text off the slides makes you stand out from 99% of presenters. In today’s sea of shocking slides, that’s such a huge win. (I use a presentation framework called FiRST, where the S is short for “stand out”, so it’s a key ingredient.)

    You might be interested in this set of 4 tips for keeping slides and handouts separate – yet in the same file (like in your PresentationXpert webinar). As you’re clearly such a keen exponent of this, I’d love to hear any suggestions you could add.

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