The proliferation of smartphones, tablets, and hybrid laptop/tablet devices in organizations has given presenters opportunities to move towards paperless handouts. A recent client experience had me re-examine methods that can work today.

The attendees at this particular workshop are all regularly travelling and this has necessitated them moving to an almost totally paperless environment. They had all travelled to one city for the workshop, and instead of printing the handout, the organizer had emailed the PDF file to everyone. I wanted everyone to be able to take notes on the handout, so I reviewed the options.

Default options in Windows & Mac

In Windows, the basic Adobe Reader application does not allow you to add notes, called annotations in Acrobat, unless the file has been produced using an upgraded version of Acrobat. Saving your PDF file from PowerPoint or Word does not include this feature, so most people will not be able to use Acrobat Reader to add notes to your PDF handout.

If the audience is all using Macs, the solution is quite simple. On a Mac, the PDF file will open by default in the Preview app, one of the built-in Mac apps. This app does allow you to add annotations to PDF files without any additional settings required when it is created.

Cross-platform solution in OneNote

An approach that can work on either Windows or Mac platforms, as well as mobile platforms such as iOS, Android, or Windows Phone, is to use Microsoft's OneNote. You first import the PDF document into OneNote by using the feature of printing the document into a note. You can then add annotations to this note, which is really a copy of the PDF file. Since the note is available on all platforms OneNote is available for, it is easy to see or add to your notes and annotations on different devices. With the recent update to OneNote on iOS, you can even add the PDF file from your iOS device like an iPhone or iPad. I find even with the latest iOS app that the position of the annotations you can add using the iOS app is limited to above or below the PDF page unless an annotation has already been added by a desktop version of OneNote. This inconsistent behaviour is annoying, but this is one of the only cross-platform solutions that most corporate IT departments would support.

If you want to try out OneNote, you can read this tutorial on inserting a file into a note (the instructions are for OneNote 2007, but they apply to the 2010 and 2013 versions as well). The new feature of inserting a PDF file in the iOS version is demonstrated in this tutorial I created.

Other apps for mobile devices

If you don't want to use OneNote on iOS or Android, you can use the app GoodReader on iOS or a number of similar apps on Android. Add the PDF file to the app from your computer or one of the many online services supported. Then you can add annotations to the PDF file on your device. You can copy the annotated file back to one of the web services or your computer once you are done.

Use the PDF format for paperless handouts

As a presenter, make sure your handout is available in PDF format, since this preserves the look and is the most widely accepted format for the devices and apps that will allow audience members to take notes on the handout electronically. To be familiar with what your audience will experience, create a PDF handout and use one of the methods above to take notes on the handout. Then you will know what challenges the audience may encounter and you can modify your handout or methods appropriately.

Will moving to paperless handouts work for all audiences? No. But for more and more people who are comfortable with mobile devices and who carry them everywhere, a paperless handout will be an increasingly preferred option.