I had a disagreement with a fellow businessperson this week. I’m a writing coach, he’s a leadership coach. We both taught in the Summer Seminar Series put on by the Central Florida Christian Chamber of Commerce. On Tuesday, he attended my article-writing seminar, where I passed out handouts containing my major talking points. On Thursday, I attended his leadership seminar, where he handed out ruled paper with his logo on top. “I’m not giving you bullet points,” he said, “because you’ll retain the information better if you put it in your own words.”
While his statement is true, I still disagreed with his omission of the handouts. The problem, as I see it, is that if I’m writing down what you said a minute ago, I’m not paying attention to what you’re saying now.
Where I felt the absence of handouts most keenly was at the end of his talk, when he showed us a PowerPoint slide with a list of books he suggested we read. So we had to copy the titles from the slide. Not, in my opinion, an effective use of people’s time.
Here are the things I think belong on seminar handouts:
- Key points you want people to remember.
- Direct quotes from others that you cite in your talk.
- Resources students can consult for further information.
- Action steps you encourage students to take later.
- Your e-mail address.
I’m not a fan of fill-in-the-blank seminar handouts, though some speakers I respect use them. You know the kind of handout I mean. They include something like this:
There’s no ____ like the _______.
Where you’re supposed to fill in “time” and “present.” Does that really help you retain? I don’t think so.
I like to design my handouts with wide margins, so people have space to add their own thoughts. This, I feel, is the primary purpose of note-taking. Not to copy down the speaker’s words, but to capture your own ideas about them.
I feel the purpose of the handout is to give listeners a visual anchor to accompany my spoken words. Not that the handout is a transcript of the talk. Just the highlights. But if you see a phrase like “Envision your readers, and write as if sending them a letter” while you’re listening to me talk about identifying your target market, I believe you’ll remember the message more clearly, regardless of whether you’re primarily a visual or auditory learner.
This puts me in opposition to another school of thought. That’s the one that advises giving handouts, but only after the talk is over. Proponents of this method believe that if I have the handout first, I’ll be reading about what you’re going to say a minute from now instead of paying attention to what you’re saying right now.
I’ll concede that possibility, but I think it’s outweighed by the problem that I may spend an hour frantically trying to take dictation of your brilliant sayings, only to learn at the end that you have your wisdom all neatly typed out for me. Also, if you’re going to use this method, don’t say things like, “I recommend that you read Man’s Rise To Civilization As Shown By The Indians Of North America From Primeval Times To The Coming Of The Industrial State by Peter Farb” without informing your listeners that they needn’t write down the title because it will be on the handout.
When you study, do you find handouts a blessing or a curse? When you teach, how do you use handouts? Or do you not use them? Feel free to disagree with me. I’m not quite so cocky as to believe I’m always right. At least, not anymore.