One of the most common problems with PowerPoint presentations is slides that are loaded with information, way too busy for the audience to see. When I try to offer feedback on that problem in my workshops, very often, participants reply that they have to be that detailed because they’re also serving as a handout. If the presenter simplified the slide, then the handout would be too simple, which might not make much sense a week or month later if the audience member referred to it. 

This creates a dilemma. If your visual on the screen is simple — which it should be — then your handout is probably not detailed enough to be an appropriate takeaway. But if you design your visuals so they will have more detail to beef up your handouts, then your slides will be too busy to be effective.

Here’s the best solution to that dilemma: don’t make your handouts replicas of your slides. Create a separate document for your handout. That document — whether a notebook or report or what’s referred to in the corporate world as “the deck” — has all the detail. But the slides projected on the screen are simple, bullet-point versions of the detail. They serve as talking points — the key points that would help the audience understand and remember the ideas — but are not so complex and overdone that they serve no purpose.

Avoid redundancy between your slides and handouts whenever possible. Design your materials in such a way that the audience’s focus will clearly be directed to either the visual or the handout (when they’re not focused on you!). Let one complement the other, but avoid unnecessary duplication.

And before you start to complain about how that will double your work load, to create two versions, consider this. Be honest, what’s the nature of the PowerPoint you’re going to create anyway? Detailed, right? Lots of information on each slide. So, go ahead and go with that instinct — and save that as your handout. Then go through it, editing vigorously until you get each slide down to key, simple points — and save that as your slide presentation. And to overcome another objection I often hear — yes, your projected slides should have dark backgrounds and light type to be most visible and professional. But you do not have to print your handouts out with all that heavy ink coverage. In the print box, simply select “black and white” as your option and the background will be white and the type will be printed in black type.

As long as I’m on the subject of handouts, let me offer suggestions on two other fairly common issues. One is the frustration of having the audience focus on the handout when you don’t want them to. While it’s impossible to control what members of the audience do, you can minimize this by strategically choosing when to pass out your materials. If you hand them out during your presentation, then you can expect all heads to go down and focus on the handouts. So, one option to minimize the audience’s attention on the notes is to get them out ahead of time – literally send or email them in advance or else have them set at their seats when they arrive. This allows the group to peruse the materials before the presentation. That way, they’ve satisfied their curiosity and are more likely to focus on you when you begin. The other option is to offer them after your presentation. You can explain during your talk that there will be a detailed handout available afterward, so they’ll be satisfied that they’re getting some kind of takeaway.

There is another common complaint I hear often: when audience members read ahead in the handouts. This may mean they see the “bottom line” before you want them to. Or they find something on page five that they’ll immediately ask a question about, even though you’re discussing page two. One way to minimize this is by following the previous suggestion — strategically distributing the materials either ahead of time or afterwards. Another alternative is to design your handouts so they’re incomplete. Put in some blanks that the audience can fill in as you go along. Purposefully leave out the key information so people won’t get it before you’re ready to reveal it.

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