When Should You Distribute Handouts: Before Or After?

Your audiences can do only one thing at a time.

They can either listen to you, read your PowerPoint slides, or peruse the handouts you distributed prior to your speech. They can’t do all three at once. Research finds that when audience members have to choose between looking or listening, they tend to look. The eye beats the ear. And if they’re reading, they’re not listening.

For that reason, many public speaking coaches teach their clients not to distribute copies of their PowerPoint presentations – or any takeaway notes – until after they’ve concluded their presentations. After all, why make it even harder for the audience to focus on your presentation? Plus, many speakers want to keep at least some suspense in their talks and prefer not to let their audiences get too far ahead of them.

I’ve generally subscribed to that view, and have advised our clients against competing against themselves by distributing notes in advance.

But a funny thing has happened twice over the past month. Two clients for whom I was giving a speech told me they didn’t like that approach and asked me to give their trainees the takeaway notes at the beginning so they could take notes on them during the session.

Those two clients, who provided me with the same feedback within weeks of one another, forced me to rethink my approach. I knew what the problem was with handing out materials that competed with my presentation – but had I been using the right solution?

In order to accommodate my clients’ requests, I’m thinking about using a solution that meets somewhere in the middle: I’ll hand out my PowerPoint slides in advance so the audience can take notes (I generally use very few slides, and they tend to be graphics-heavy), but I’ll strip the slides of any information that I don’t want them to know in advance of us discussing it.

I might also hand out a short summary of my takeaway packet in advance, on which they can take notes. But I’ll still reserve the full packet for the end of the talk.

I haven’t settled on the “perfect” answer to this topic yet. What do you think? What’s the best way to allow the audience to take notes in the manner that makes them most comfortable without distracting them or allowing them to get too far ahead of you?