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Don’t Print Your PowerPoint Slides

Should you produce handouts for your presentation?

The process for my company’s newsletter allows me to edit and vet before it is published. It’s a process that never quite works and this month pretty much failed, hence I get the uncomfortable job of publicly disagreeing with the team.

Their position in the article “PowerPoint Handouts” (in my opinion) is fundamentally wrong. The short answer to the lead question isn’t that there are pros and cons to the use of handouts at all. It’s a resounding NO NO NO.

In the last 10 years, I have presented (conservative estimate) about 1500 times – and on how many of those occasions have I printed off a set of slides and handed them out to the audience? NEVER. Not once or twice, not occasionally. NEVER.

Why print and hand out your slides to the audience?

Let’s ignore the real answers – habit, fulfilling someone else’s expectations, ignorance etc. – and let’s instead look at the possible intelligent responses.

  • To help the audience follow the presentation
  • To help the audience remember the presentation
  • To help the audience pass the information on to others
  • To save the audience from the effort of taking notes
  • To allow them to consider the content ahead of the presentation

Now clearly, an effective presentation has to be engaging and memorable to achieve its objectives. Lets assume you have a presentation that has been designed to be both using Visual Cognitive Dissonance (VCD) and Passive Mnemonic Processing (PMP):

  1. To help the audience follow the presentation: Handouts distract the audience and encourage them to jump ahead and ignore the flow of information you have carefully constructed. If an audience member has a question, I want them to ask me, not flip back or ahead to check out my slides. More importantly, if the slides use visual cognitive dissonance, they miss everything important if they’re not paying attention to the actual presentation.
  2. To help the audience remember the presentation: Passive mnemonic processing is a technique used to lock ideas into the audiences’ memory. Unfortunately for the handouts, this technique requires a human to effectively synthesize the information for the audience. If they have the option to think about it later (when they read the notes in the bath that night… and other myths!) why would they bother?
  3. To help the audience pass the information on to others: If you really want them to deliver your message for you (really!?) then you will need more than a printed copy of the slides. They need to be trained on the material and to rehearse the presentation. For me, I always look for the opportunity to deliver the message again to a different audience. Why would I undermine that by allowing someone to interpret my message and my material?
  4. To save the audience from the effort of taking notes: No, the act of taking notes forces them to synthesis the information, preventing them from taking notes is presenter suicide. Believing that giving a copy of the slides will increase the chances of them making notes is stupid. Easy answer: give them note pads and pens!
  5. To allow them to consider the content ahead of the presentation: This just defeats the purpose of the presentation doesn’t it? Might as well send a briefing document (which IMHO is what most PowerPoint files actually are) and facilitate a debate afterwards. This might be an effective meeting but it’s not a presentation.

Printed slides versus printed support material

What if the question was not about the use of handouts, but “printed support material” (e.g. brochures). Well that’s different. Now, the m62.net article makes more sense – but even here they miss the most important point that of using Information sequencing to promote synthesis and recall.

Teaching Presentations

m62 courses have a workbook, most of which is designed to encourage the delegate to write or draw copies of what they see and learn as a means to synthesize the material. This is one of the 5 passive mnemonic processes we teach – actively repeating a diagram by drawing it as a form of rehearsal. Pre-course material covers some of the syllabus, but it does so using different examples, diagrams and visuals. Post-course material is designed to improve recall, encourage transition and embed the learning. None of this contains printed copies of the slides.

Tools to encourage the use of information learned are essential, processes, tick sheets, forms, spread sheets are all exceptional ways of encouraging post-course synthesis. None are as useless or as pointless as printed versions of the presentation slides.

One final comment, on the “it can’t hurt” argument for handouts during training. Rubbish! It can and it does alter the students’ propensity to listen, engage and therefore synthesize the information. They can and will make effective teaching harder. The only advantage of printing a copy of your slides is that its easy, it doesn’t require the thought necessary for a proper solution, it is ineffective precisely because it doesn’t take effort or thought to do. It’s at best lazy and at worst criminal.

Sales Presentations

The single biggest reason for not having handouts in a sales situation is that the day you give it to a prospect is the day before they give it to your competitors.

True story: It is much easier working out how to position for a sale if you know what the competition is going to say. I helped a client bid on a $1B data center project against IBM, after reviewing one of IBM’s recent data center pitches courtesy of a friend of a friend. I am sure when the IBM salesperson gave his slides to his prospect it was with the best intentions of winning the deal, instead it cost them dearly.

The second reason is that more often than not, the biggest challenge in making a sale is finding the excuse to talk to the prospect on a regular basis. The more printed material he has the less likely he is to call or meet with you. Your chances of closing are best when you are seated in front of the decision maker. Getting there is the trick and printed versions of your pitch take away your value at best and at worst enable to pitch your wares for you. Not smart selling by any means.

I should stop here. To me, those reasons alone make the case. However, the m62.net article suggests an executive summary if you are going to leave something behind. Again, I disagree.

  • Every piece should sell – any printed material should focus on the pain the client is experiencing while leaving an invitation and solid reason to contact you.
  • It should pass the “3-second rule” – that is, glance at the page for 3 seconds, did you get you see a something that would leave you wanting more information? If not, then it is destined for the bin unread.

Handing out your slides is never a good idea

There is a case for some pre-presentation material and for some post-presentation material but it’s probably better as a rich media communication not a paper based, self-explanatory slide dump.

If you have a presentation that doesn’t use visual cognitive dissonance or passive mnemonic processing, and therefore is self-explanatory and poorly structured, then I suggest you don’t have a presentation. At best, you have a script; at worst you have a complete waste of everybody’s time. Have confidence in your message and your singular ability to deliver it effectively.



    Thanks, NIck.
    I think it makes sense, as my experience shows that whenever salesperson leaves or sends out such stuff, it is never used by client (excluding the case when it’s handed out to competition:) ).
    The salespeople just have to learn how to respond to such request from clients (they are definitely a lot of such requests). Everyone should think of his own approach to turning down such requests intelligently.



    Case well made. The challenge, is to end these well embedded bad habits. It can be like trying to turn a tanker. However, with enough tugs……



    Again, you are right on the mark. As a 21 year sales & marketing executive (although I’m a degreed design engineer), I can vouch for the consistent requirement for people wanting to leave slides, see presentations, etc. I truly believe you are one of the few who understand the “sales” side of presenting (addressing the painj), and I am always interested in hearing how you can debate the traditional presentation mindset (as I continue my own freelance business on the side of my Director of Sales functions).

    Kudos…and keep up the good work!


      Craig, thanks for the comment. What’s the Side Line? I assume it’s sales related!



        First, I just refound this article on your blog and realized I never responded. My apologies.

        My freelance business is a presentation business – specifically addressing a parallel method of presenting to what many in my field (engineering software) are trained on: solution selling. I focus on 3 areas: design, training, and coaching. I have also worked with some other presentation designers to help them strategically devise a message (you and I have similar ideas on how the presentation should be formatted). As someone who has presented hundreds (if not thousands) of times in front of prospects, employees, supervisors, customers, and vendors…I got frustrated with the same old presentation as usual philosophy that just seemed to waste everyone’s time. A few years ago, I started doing this on a freelance business, and now will also be incorporating sales training (if they don’t understand how procedurally to sell a solution, then they won’t know if their presentation runs parallel to it ;-), marketing, leadership, and personal branding.

        Anyway, thanks for the great posts. Sometimes I feel as if you are my mind that has taken leave of my body and ventured out on it’s own ;-)


    You are right on the mark. People have asked me for handouts of my presentations, and I always tell them that with the amount of animation, builds, and other transitions I incorporate into my decks the handouts would make no sense to them.

    Besides being a huge waste of paper and a needless expense, I agree that handouts disrupt the carefully crafted flow of information that every speaker should create for his or her presentation.


    I have to say, sometimes I think people do the handout thing out of habit, “it’s what everyone does” mentality, that and it feels like a tangible deliverable. “I haven’t really prepared but its OK I have a set of handouts for you!” both of which ultimately indicate a lack of preparation or thought behind the presentation.

    Glad we all agree it’s stupid.. thanks for commenting!

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