Presenting when you are not allowed to use a handout

A participant in one of my workshops recently presented me with a new challenge.  In his position as a sales professional, he has now encountered two large organizations who have stated that when he presents to them, he is forbidden from bringing handouts for the audience.  This ban is part of their environmental efforts.

Research has shown that people remember better when they can concentrate on what the speaker is saying and take down key points relevant to their situation instead of madly writing notes of what is being said.  The challenge is how to deal with the potential downside of this policy – decisions being made on poorly recalled ideas and facts.

Let me suggest an approach to designing and delivering your presentation that has a high potential to get the key messages remembered and acted upon in this no-handout scenario.  It involves planning in a slightly different way and delivering your presentation in a somewhat more direct manner.

Step 1: Plan your key messages even more carefully
I have always advocated a strong and clear structure as the foundation of any presentation.  Without a handout to guide the audience, you need to place an even greater emphasis on the clarity of the structure and defining each key point that you will make.  This is important because you will be directing the audience to make note of these key messages as you deliver your presentation.  A good way to test your structure is to write out what you want the audience to have in their handwritten notes at the end of your presentation.  Then you need to design your presentation to ensure that they find each of those points so compelling that they write them down.

Step 2: Design slides with a headline and visuals instead of text
The more text the audience sees on the slide, the less they are inclined to write it down.  If there is too much text, they don’t know what the important point is and won’t write anything down.  Instead, design each slide with a headline that summarizes the key message and a visual that engages the audience in a conversation with you.  If there is an easy sentence or point for them to jot down and they are engaged in understanding the importance of that point, they are more likely to write it down and remember to act on it.

Step 3: Manage their expectations
Your audience may not know what to expect in terms of how much they need to write down and whether they will be able to catch everything you say.  This can cause extra tension on their part.  You want to ease that tension so they can hear and understand your message.  To do so, let them know at the start of the presentation how things will run.  Let them know that you’ll be indicating the key points to remember, that they can take any notes they want that are relevant to them using the information you will be sharing, and that you’ll make your slides or a sheet of notes available via e-mail after your presentation.  This way, they are relaxed and ready to listen to what you have to say.

Step 4: Tell them what to write down
As harsh as this sounds, if you don’t give them direction to write certain points down, they likely won’t write down what you wanted them to.  Don’t be like a general commanding them to write this point down, but use phrases that are gentle instructions.  Here are some examples:

“I want you to write this down/note this/jot this down”
“Make a note of this”
“Jot down this point”
“If I were in your position, I’d note/jot down/write down”
“This is a keeper”
“I think you’ll want to write this down/jot this down/make a note of this”
“Put this on paper to share with others/refer to later”

Use variations on the above phrases to direct the audience in a gentle way to write down what you want them to remember and act upon from your presentation.  If you have prepared them in advance as stated in the previous point, no one will take offense to these reminders.

Step 5: Reinforce at the end and after the presentation
At the end of your presentation, make sure you have a slide that summarizes the key points you want to make sure they have noted.  You can again use a gentle reminder to prompt those who may have missed a point to make note of it.  You could say, “On this slide, I’ve summarized the key ideas we have discussed today.  You may want to take a moment to make sure you haven’t missed any of these in your notes so that when making your decision, everyone has the same set of facts about our service.”  Base this slide on the ideal set of notes you started with in the design phase.  If you have the e-mail address of everyone in the audience or the contact information of the organizer who knows everyone who attended, you can distribute your slides or a key points summary document by e-mail later that day or first thing the next day.  You want to get this reminder of the key points in their hands within 24 hours if possible so that it locks your messages into their memory.

With more organizations looking to be more environmentally friendly, you will start to run into the restriction of not being allowed to use handouts in your presentations more and more.  When faced with this potential obstacle, use the ideas above to design and deliver a presentation that will still get remembered and acted upon.

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 4.8 million times and liked over 17,000 times on YouTube.