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What if handouts aren't practical?

I bought and read "The Cognitive Style of Powerpoint," and I agree that PPt is a highly flawed tool. However, when I was discussing it with a friend in the energy efficiency consulting business, he had a significant objection to one part of E.T.'s thesis.

My friend is well regarded in his field, and as a result he makes many presentations at national conferences, sometimes to hundreds of people, often several times a day. He simply can't afford the money and time to print, transport, and distribute hundreds or even thousands of handouts for a one or two day event.

He told me that up until a few years ago he was the last person at conferences walking around with trays of slides. Over time it became difficult to get a slide projector at conferences. He has gone to PowerPoint, and finds it useful. Given his holdout status as a 35mm slide user, I imagine that he is better with PowerPoint than most.

So, if he is to give up PowerPoint, and if he can't use handouts, what are his options? Could E.T. work with someone to come up with a digitally projected alternative? Condemning PowerPoint for its inadequacies is fine, but there are presenters with unmet needs.

I should note that after reading Mr. Tufte's pamphlet on PowerPoint, I abandoned its traditional use for my last conference presentation. I used a five page text handout and used PowerPoint for photographic images only. It worked well, but there were only forty people expected for the session.


Hilton Dier III

-- Hilton Dier III (email)

Generating a single-page PDF file is even easier and cheaper if you're using Mac OS X, since it lets you print straight to PDF from your application. This eliminates the need for Adobe Acrobat.

It's a great way to archive interesting Web pages, too.

-- John Blackburn (email)

I think the other answers have missed the boat. I agree that Acrobat is a useful alternative to Powerpoint but the original question was what to do when the audience is too numerous to use handouts.

I think this is a good question and like any good questions it draws out a multifaceted answer.

First, one must question the utility of seminars with extremely large audiences. I have been at many conferences where the audience size was near 1000 people. At this size interaction between speaker and audience becomes difficult, the projection size and brightness requirements exceed the capability of ordinary slide projectors and slides (too much heat, the slides melt) and lower resolution digital projection techniques forced on the speaker, the ambient noise makes hearing even an amplified speaker difficult and last but not least the speaker appears as a tiny figure in the distance while the talk is proceeding (Conference organisers should include splitscreen techniques to show the 'slide' and/or the speaker on the screens). In my opinion this size of audience reduces the seminar to a showpiece or advertisement for the conference and is in part responsible for the `voiceover' style of presentation.

Given that a large audience seminar is required for various reasons, is a handout really too time-consuming or expensive? This is unlikely. It does take time to produce a handout but audience size has little impact here beyond the time required to physically print the handout. I have printed 200 sorted and stapled 4-leaf 8 page handouts in about 15 minutes using a high speed copier. It took me two days to write the handout, so production time is a small praction of the total time. However, distribution of a handout can take up important time. I have seen lectures where the lecturer waited while 200 copies were distributed through the audience. It can take tens of minutes for this to occur, seriously eating into the lecturers time. A better idea is to arrange distribution prior to the lecture (best) or on entering the the lecture room (worst). At a conference you might consider adding teh handout to the conference registration package.

For more than 20-50 copies a photocopier may be too expensive but a printer can make the handout for a few cents for each copy (People don't consider using a printer often enough). Careful design (not simply reproducing the slides) can reduce the cost significantly. While the cost of printing the handout may be large in absolute terms (perhaps a hundred or so dollars), as a fraction of the cost of preparing for and attending the conference, the cost of a handout is unlikely to be large

Now if physical handouts are truly out, try an electronic one. At the beginning and end of your talk let them know that a pdf file is available for download. At the begining to relieve anyone of the responsibility of making sketches of your slides and at the end to remind them of where to get it.

If you don't want to provide a handout at all -- simply don't. Concentrate on making the best of a bad lot and tell people the name of the coffee shop/bar you hangout at. In this situation the best you can hope for will be that people will be intrigued by your presentation and hunt you down for more information.

Best of Luck

-- John Walker (email)

Handouts give you two desirable things:

1) Encouragement not to go along with the usual cognitive style of Powerpoint.

2) Higher resolution than people can make out when looking at a projector screen many metres away, typically.

If handouts are impractical you must do without that extra resolution on your graphics but it is not necessary to adopt the usual cognitive style of Powerpoint, with endless nested bullets.

-- Matthew Leitch (email)

After an ET course about five years ago, I gave up on ppt completely and have developed a what seems to be a more effective presentation method. I've used this in talks to small audiences (a dozen people) and large ones (several hundred). First of all, when preparing to "give a paper" at a scientific meeting, I actually write a paper --- not just a bulleted outline of the talk, but the actual narrative that I seek to present. Then I typeset the paper and store it on my personal webpage as a pdf. Prior to the actual presentation at the meeting, I make a short summary of the salient points of my talk and put these into a document that will fit onto a two-sided 3-by-5 card. (I have the cards printed up in some fun color that might hold a connection to the meeting: Bronco orange in Denver, Carolina blue in Chapel Hill, etc.) I also include on the cards my email address and the URL of the paper that I am presenting. The data density of one 3-by-5 card and an 8-point font probably exceeds 3 or 4 ppt slides --- a good deal of information can be put onto those little guys.

At the beginning of the talk, I solicit help from a few members of the audience to distribute the 3-by-5 cards. This really takes no time at all but gets a certain buzz generated in the audience. "Ooh! A giveaway!" The cards are small enough that the audience members can slip them into a pocket or purse and not have to worry about losing a large package of printed material. They can use the cards to follow along with the general flow of the talk but there isn't a pile of 8.5" x 11" pages of printed to material to distract them from paying attention to me!

This method has a number of advantages that have really helped me:

* My talks are vastly improved because I actually spend time before the meeting thinking through exactly what I want to say.

* The stored pdf allows the audience to know exactly what I meant to say even if my words may have gotten slightly twisted in the actual verbal presentation.

* Since there are no words or sentence fragments up on the wall, the audience pays attention better. (This might lead to better comprehension but I haven't tested it!)

* If they really want to have documentation of my talk, they run to the web site when they get back home and they can download the paper. The website also contains the other things I have written so it gives them some other propaganda as well.

* While attending other talks at the meeting, I can tell who has been at my talk by the little colored card protruding from the shirt pocket!

* After the talk is over, I can use the cards as business cards with my contact information or as bookmarks for my kids' story books.

All in all, I've had tremendous response from audiences at these meetings when I use this format.

-- Rafe Donahue (email)

Thanks for all the responses. I had another discussion with the presenter in question and the idea of using web based information came up. Most people at high tech conventions have web access, and giving a URL allows the presenter to use a "virtual handout." In my own workshops I not only give handouts (the average workshop attendance is 10) but in those handouts is a list of useful URLS where students can find much more information than I would want to print and copy. I am lucky, vis a vis handouts, in that my workshops are small, and I know beforehand how many will attend. A presenter at a convention often has no idea how many handouts might be needed.

Yes, I agree that above a certain audience size a presentation rapidly loses effectiveness. Good technique can only push the envelope so far.

Hilton Dier III

-- Hilton Dier III (email)

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