How To Present Well: Build Your Handouts

Far harder than delivering the presentation is creating the handouts. It’s the hardest part of this entire process short of cooking up that awesome title two episodes back. Stay close.

We may have lost most presentation designers right here, in fact, ’cause when it comes to handout design most of them max out at hitting Print from PowerPoint’s file menu. These presenters take a low-resolution medium (PowerPoint slides; only a few lines permitted per slide) and port them to a high-resolution medium (paper; lots of lines permitted per page) without scaling up the content. An opportunity tragically missed.

Furthermore, lemme ask you, as a conference attendee, how many of those packets have you kept a day past the presentation? A year? We could work out some numbers real quick on the back of an envelope reflecting paper waste but the result, regardless of our estimations, is kinda sad, right? No one keeps those things.

I wanted to design something my audience would keep, something they’d use. I wanted the attendees to carry their handouts past the trash can propping open the door. I wanted them to reflect on their handouts often and, after finally internalizing their content decades later, hand them down to a younger teacher.

If you laugh I’ll get depressed again. Why should I aim any lower? Why would you aim any lower? What’s the point?

To accomplish this, I knew the audience had to build the handouts themselves, which isn’t the same as handing its members their own reams of blank legal. They needed lots of room to make the handouts their own, lots of blank space, but the blank space had to be carefully designed.

Two ways I could’ve blown this:

  1. I could’ve thrown down the points I wanted to make and then subbed in blanks for key words. Churches do this a lot.
  2. Sure, there are a lot of folks who take a lot of pride in keeping up with those blanks, but that approach doesn’t generate anywhere near the kind of ownership I needed or the presenter-audience chemistry I wanted.

  3. I could’ve handed them a blank piece of computer paper and let them write what they wanted, which would’ve been inane also, but for more obvious reasons than my last hypothetical blunder.

    I mention it only to establish our extremes. Design equilibrium lies somewhere between handing them a blank slate and handing them a slide-for-slide PowerPoint printout.

So I needed to design a handout that encouraged them to work, that begged them to put their own words to my situations. It had to look good. My audience wouldn’t bring me anywhere near its best if I hadn’t reciprocated in advance.

So I thought hard about the handout’s function and the process was simple after that. I divided a piece of letter paper into three partitions. I took half the page to illustrate each cliché. I split the other half into quarters for the audience to a) identify the cliché and b) concoct a method for kicking it out of the classroom.

We’re tackling five clichés. Here’s one of them.

What I got right:

  1. It would’ve been easy to leave the matter at white boxes for the cliché and its solution but, again, I wanted the design to be as inviting as possible, so I threw down some fine lines. (C – you reading this? That was you, girl.)
  2. I used a landscape layout because half a landscape is basically portrait and I needed lots of portraits. (Serious bonus points if you know who Roland Pryzbylewski is and what he’s doing here.)
  3. I coulda left it here too, five clichés and the solutions we constructed together. I was pretty sure if I facilitated things properly they’d walk away with a valuable document. Still I went ahead and threw on some assessment resources – completed tests, blank tests, blank concept checklists, templates galore – to complement the last and largest cliché. And with that, we’ve value-added these handouts to death.

One way I blew this:

  1. I gave equal space to the cliché and its solution. Ethically, this bugs me. Equal space implies equal weight implies the cliché and its solution are doomed to this push-me-pull-you equilibrium when, in fact, it’s possible to demolish the clichés. It’s a subtle point but one which nagged me all morning. If you think these things don’t matter, you’re only mostly right. Problem is, these little sacrifices compound quickly until all you’ve got is a great design that could’ve been. Should been this, with the second half split along the golden ratio:

Please take final note of fonts, photos, and layout, all of which will resurface during the slide design part of our show. If you’ve stuck with us from the start, I hope you’ve noticed by now that with a good presentation absolutely nothing is easy.

I’ll leave you with the handouts:

I'm Dan and this is my blog. I'm a former high school math teacher and current head of teaching at Desmos. He / him. More here.


  1. I like Case Study 2, text on one side notes on the other. I might use it for my workshops. When I do workshops that refer to a lot of internet sites I capture the webpages using Hypersnap, then make the handouts with sequential links—people then can check off the ones they are interested in taking a look at. I publish the links to one of my websites so people can get to them quickly. Works for me–but probably is not what you need.

  2. Case study #2 is eluding me. Care to elaborate?

    Love the idea of the golden ratio – looks more appealing and I agree on their not deserving equal space.

    65% needed for field trips – is this a school policy? If not, how does that fly with the rest of the staff and parents?

    Great design on the handouts. FYI- you’ve influenced at least one of your readers. I’m spending hours on my handouts/presentations for my summer school class. Thinking about design, layout, white space… Now when I look at the materials that come with the textbook, I shudder. I’m no where near your level, but at least I’m not using comic sans anymore!

    Hey, any chance of a video podcast of your presentation?

  3. Nancy, you have any examples of your work on the ol’ Intertubes? Sounds like good design I’d like to see.

    Jackie, somewhere in the first week, no matter what the subject or the class, every teacher runs through her syllabus.

    Maybe there is some innovative syllabus work out there I’m unaware of but I kinda doubt it. The reality for student x is that in five or more classes she’s gonna get a thick packet including (variously) school policies, class policies, school expected learning results, and state standards. The teacher will take a linear route through the material and straight from the sound of this dull starter’s pistol, the student knows it’s gonna be a year like every other.

    Which is fine if a student has enjoyed every other year, but for struggling math student y, she hasn’t, and this isn’t fine.

    Somewhere in my second year I realized this and then built a condensed syllabus. Not only that, I chopped out the important parts so students would have something to occupy themselves while I talked, revealed each portion individually, and took guesses.

    I hear rumor that some teachers develop class rules with the students during this time. I’m not sure I’m ready for that but I do know that something different has to happen here, that as first impressions go, your standard syllabus experience ain’t a great one.

    P.S. The field trip policy was school policy at my last school, my policy at this one. My students seems to understand the policy at this one but they forge my signature anyway.

    P.P.S. This presentation’s gonna surface in a couple different forms around here, video probably last among them.

  4. Great point with the syllabus. I realized that when I taught in middle school. By the time my seventh period made it to my class on day one, they would have heard 6 other teachers talk, talk, talk.

    And the things that we teachers told them that first day would have to be repeated throughout the year when relevant, because they wouldn’t remember it from the first day anyway. For example, you can explain your homework policy, but when you assign that first homework, you’re going to have to remind them. So why not wait until you assign that first homework, when you really have their attention and they have a need for the the “homework policy” info.

    So, I try to think to myself, what would I (if I was a student) really want to know on that first day? What fears, concerns, questions and hopes would I have walking into my teacher’s room?

    In other words, how can I get those big questions answered for my students, leaving the details to be dealt with as they arise and are needed? I also see it as not wasting my precious class time with them by spending it on something that will have to be repeated, and would be more appropriately shared later.

    Just another way I try to stay relevant to them and their needs.

  5. Steve Peters

    July 16, 2007 - 5:58 am -

    Wow Fischer and the Prez in the same handout. I wonder if gambling in class would have prompted Max to form the Rushmore dice and blackjack society.

    Subtle references aside, that’s a really nice syllabus you’ve got there. I had fun reading it, which is a lot to say for a class syllabus.

    I’ll second the request for a video podcast so I discuss good presentation techniques with strangers on the subway via my iPod.

  6. Jackie, shuddering at those textbook-provided ancillary materials is among the most important steps. At least you know bad design when you see it. Those folks who work in the Ancillary Material divisions at McDougal, Prentice Hall, Holt, and others should be summarily fired. They do a horrible job across the board and haven’t seemed to advance at all over the last 20 years in anything other than wasting paper and our time.

    I see you all nodding your heads as you read Dan’s post. Good ideas, right? Now how does this impact the handouts we give to our students? Are we “building” those or simply reproducing them? Take these techniques and apply them to our classrooms because we’ve got similar responsibilities there. I’ll be the first to admit that I do waaaaay too much “Write Great Stuff Here.” Proud to say that I have never hit Print from PP, though.

    Where are my bonus points? I haven’t seen the show, but from what I’ve read here and elsewhere I get why he’s there and laughed when I saw that slide.

    Do all those photos show up well on the copies you’re handing out?

  7. Reckon Todd & Steve win the bonus points for catching the return of Prezbo. Steve gets an extra pat on the back for catching Max Fischer. You have to amuse yourself sometimes, you know?

    Todd’s last question is worth addressing here, though the issue felt too specific when I wrote the post.

    Printers are dumb. Copiers are dumber. And when you use both, you’ve gotta eliminate the guesswork. So I took those photos into Photoshop and crushed out the grays. So now we’re at lots of blacks and whites and very few midtones, which should reproduce fairly accurately. We’ll see.