Paperless Handouts; Issue #275 November 27, 2012

Is it possible to replace the paper handouts we use for our presentations with a more environmentally friendly electronic version that the audience downloads in advance or just before we start? The answer is changing, and right now it would be a “maybe.”

Electronic handouts can save money on printing, save the environment by using less paper, and be easily shared with others, extending the reach of your presentation. While electronic handouts have many advantages, there are some challenges, such as participants desire to take notes on the handouts and not everyone having the device or technology needed to use an electronic handout.

Deciding on the format for the handouts is probably the easiest decision when moving to electronic handouts. The best format to use is the well-known Adobe Acrobat PDF format. This format is easy to produce from many programs, including the Microsoft Office suite. Second, this format is supported on almost all the platforms that your audience will use, including Windows, Mac OSX, iOS, Android, and Blackberry. With the full Adobe Acrobat software, you can create PDF files from source documents, combine files if you want a more detailed handout, and turn on the Commenting setting so participants can take notes with the Acrobat Reader program.

The handout files can be sent by e-mail to your audience or made available for download from your intranet or on a shared drive. If you are asking people to download the file, send them a direct link in an e-mail so they don’t have to hunt all over your intranet or shared drive to find it.

As a presenter, you need to plan for participants using a broad variety of devices to view and use the handouts. Many participants will want to take notes on the handout, so you need to educate them on how that can be done on many different platforms. On Windows, the Adobe Acrobat Reader will allow annotations or comments only if the setting has been turned on in advance. Other PDF software allows annotations regardless of the Adobe setting (one that works well is PDF-XChange Viewer available for free at On the Mac platform, the default Preview program allows comments to be added to a PDF file regardless of the Commenting setting. On the iOS platform, there are a number of apps that allow annotations to be added to PDF files. My favorite is GoodReader, which has both a free lite version and a paid version. There are also apps on the Android platform that allow annotations to be added, including ezPDF Reader, a highly rated app available for a small cost. The technology to allow your audience to take notes on an electronic handout is available now and across all the major platforms.

In addition to different platforms, the audience will be using different sized devices to view the handouts. You may want to consider making two formats of your handout. One is for screens that are large enough to read smaller text, usually a nine inch or larger screen. Smaller screens will probably need a handout with larger fonts in order to make the information readable. Direct people to download the version appropriate to the device they are using.

In advance of the meeting, advise people of the new way of using handouts and give them links to advice on how to take notes on an electronic handout. Help them prepare in advance by letting them know about the technology required to make best use of the handouts. Point them towards the handouts on the intranet or shared drive and encourage downloading in advance of the meeting. And recognize that it may take a few times for most people to become comfortable with this change. For those not able to make use of the electronic handout, they always can print it before coming to your presentation.

Not every presenter will be able to replace paper handouts with electronic ones, but it is a trend that presenters and organizations should prepare for now. If you want to start, follow the ideas in this article and work with other presenters in your organization to build a group that can support each other and start to create standards that work for your organization. Align with eco initiatives in your organization to gain greater awareness and support.

By Dave Paradi

Dave Paradi has over twenty-two years of experience delivering customized training workshops to help business professionals improve their presentations. He has written ten books and over 600 articles on the topic of effective presentations and his ideas have appeared in publications around the world. His focus is on helping corporate professionals visually communicate the messages in their data so they don't overwhelm and confuse executives. Dave is one of fewer than ten people in North America recognized by Microsoft with the Most Valuable Professional Award for his contributions to the Excel, PowerPoint, and Teams communities. His articles and videos on virtual presenting have been viewed over 3.5 million times and liked over 14,000 times on YouTube.