by Stephen D. Boyd, Ph.D., CSP | April 01, 2004

As the tech revolution took over, many of us  dreamed of the paperless meeting, at which all seminar notes and speaker information would be distributed electronically. The reality, of course, is quite different and evident in the piles of handouts meeting planners still need to leave around for attendees.
    A prevalent concern when offering seminar notes or printouts of PowerPoint slides is that people may feel they can forego hearing the speaker. The other risk is getting people so engrossed in the handout that they fail to pay attention to the beginning of the presentation. Still, handouts often are a necessary evil. Here are suggestions for making maximum use of the paper flood.

Ideally, to avoid distractions and to keep from interrupting the flow of the presentation, handouts should be provided at the program’s end, but that is not often practical. To time it right, think about how the room will be set up and how many people will attend the seminar.
    Coping with a crowd. If the group is large, you might want to place the outline on each seat before the participants arrive. This will prevent a line from forming at tables set up in the back.
    If the speaker has a good reason to pass the materials out during the program, count how many chairs are in each row or how many chairs are around each table, and collate the papers by those numbers. Have some assistants from the audience or your organization ready to pass them out at your signal. Ask the speaker not to cover any critical information while the materials are in the process of being distributed.
    More intimate settings. For a smaller group or in a typical classroom setting, handouts can be passed out on a need-to-know basis as the speaker works through the material. This technique will keep the participants from jumping ahead; it takes more time, however, and can sometimes disrupt the pacing of a program.
    Go to page two. Having the presenter provide specific instructions on how to view the handout keeps attendees from browsing through the pages. If the speaker finishes using the handout before the end of the session, have him tell the audience to put the materials aside.

Information for dummies. Handouts should provide clear information that is easily absorbed. Material that is complex or uses a specialized jargon needs to be supplemented by the speaker’s explanation from the dais.
    Go with the flow. Attendees should be able to follow the handout and the presentation simultaneously. One trick is to leave spaces in the material for the audience to fill in. This works well when financial data or statistical information is involved. Filling in the blanks engages the audience.
    Another trick is to print only phrases or key words that the speaker will explain during the program; the audience will take notes on the broader explanation and get a better grasp of the material.
    Get them to look up. Make sure the handouts don’t dominate the presentation. Visuals or slides require the listener to look up at the presenter or the screen.
    Find an editor. Have someone proofread the handout to avoid grammatical errors and misspellings. Such gaffes can distract the reader and damage your credibility.
    Keeping audience members interested and focused is hard enough when there is no handout to distract them. By incorporating some of the above suggestions, the material will help attendees take the program home with them and remember its key parts months later.