No Image Available


Read more from TrainingZone

googletag.cmd.push(function() { googletag.display(‘div-gpt-ad-1705321608055-0’); });

Back to Basics: Good Handouts


HandoutWhat makes a good handout? What should you avoid? And are the days of paper handouts numbered in our waste-conscious, electronic age? Dawn Smith investigates.

Handouts present trainers with some nice dilemmas. For example, there’s the thorny issue of how much to give out and in what form. For usability and eco-friendliness, a trainer may want to keep their handouts brief and to the point, or provide electronic alternatives. But clients - whether internal or external - often expect something glossy and meaty for delegates to take away.

"A handout is a physical manifestation of the quality and standard you are trying to portray, so the look and feel is as important as the content in some respects," says Graham O’Connell of the National School of Government.

"I ask myself, what handouts would I want if I was a delegate, not what handouts do I want to produce as a trainer."

Rus Slater, P3I

Not only do looks count, but size matters, in many cases. "Some organisations equate quality with quantity," says Rus Slater, whose consultancy P3I provides coaching, mentoring and training. Rus laments this 'War and Peace' approach and tries to keep things brief, but that doesn’t always go down well. "I’ve had a client tell me "I’m not paying these prices for a one page handout". My response is to ask if they would rather have 60 pages that go in the bin, or one page that people actually look at."

Judging simply by quantity, it would be enough to print off PowerPoint slides from the presentation, but this is "just lazy", says Rus. "It might look good quality at first, but around a third of it is utter waste," he says. Some slides will be of the 'comfort break' variety, while others will contain only bullet points whose meaning is quickly forgotten out of context.

Of course, PowerPoint slides could be handed out during the event, so that delegates can add their own notes for context. But then there’s a danger that participants will spend their time reading ahead rather than listening, warns Rus. Which sums up another dilemma - whether to give out material before or after the event?

Of course, the 'when' as well as the 'what' will depend largely on why the handout is being provided. Handouts designed to be used during the session will obviously be given out as needed during the day. But there’s a grey area over some of the other material that might be included: a summary of the session, aide memoirs and checklists, added-value reference material.

While some trainers prefer to keep this kind of material until after the event, Mike Morrison - Director of RapidBI Ltd - generally gives it out in advance. "A lot of people like to write notes," he says. "If you give them everything at the end they may be writing notes unnecessarily. Also, you have to accept that at some point there will be people who lose focus. If they’re looking at your notes at least they’re learning something!"

Having said that, Mike acknowledges that it’s not necessary - or necessarily desirable - to give out weighty tomes. While the package should be well-presented, with an attractive cover for example, much of the material could be provided in a non-paper format. "Added-value material could be presented as PDFs so that delegates can print them as they need to," he says. "What would be best practice, potentially, is an index of contents a couple of pages long listing the items that will be sent out."

Bryan Edwards of ABC Training Solutions suggests giving delegates a CD-ROM with all the handouts plus reference material, but if all delegates are from the same department, have a paper reference copy of the manual in the department to refer to.

One of the challenges with electronic material is that it’s not always easy to read on screen, cautions Mike Morrison. "Something that works well in Word doesn’t necessarily work on screen," he says. "It comes down to design."

"Would they rather have 60 pages that go in the bin, or one page that people actually look at."

Rus Slater, P3I

Rus Slater has gone down the road of the e-book, which is not only quite 'interactive' but works better on screen than in printed format, so that delegates tend not to print them off. "I started using this approach around eight months ago," he says. "It gives the capacity to produce a meaty package without using lots of paper."

Rus sends his e-book handouts either before the event, so that the course can be mainly revision, Q&A and practical exercises, or after the event as an aide memoire. But if sent beforehand, the client must have "assertive enough people within the organisation to go round and ensure delegates read the e-book," he says.

Another approach is to offer links to online material, rather than providing a physical e-document. An advantage is that "past participants can access the latest, updated versions," says Graham O’Connell, who explains that the National School of Government has an online service called Government Select that works on a 'pull' basis, providing access to a vast database of handouts for civil service customers. "This must be the way forward," he says.

Paper handouts still have their place in the training room, however: where delegates only need to read them, rather than interact with them, the waste can be kept to a minimum. Certain 'on-the-day' handouts can even be recycled, says Rus Slater. "I either laminate or put them into punched pockets, ask delegates not to write on them, and reuse them."

Mike Morrison suggests printing A4 pages onto A5 paper. "An A4 page looks stunning as A5 and it’s less paper," he says, adding that ink jet printing is more environmentally friendly than laser printing.

However, some handouts may need to be interactive to achieve the learning outcomes, and that means more white space, not less. "Keep generous margins for delegates to add their own notes," says Bryan Edwards, who says he makes his handouts "work-booky, with questions, exercises to be completed".

Mike Morrison comments that landscape format handouts work best for things like mind-mapping, and if the white space for notes is at the bottom of the page rather than to one side, handouts are more user friendly for left handed delegates, when presented in ring binders.

As for aide memoires, the aim should be to make them as accessible and practical as possible. That probably means avoiding the classic ring binder. Rus Slater uses gift card software to produce single-fold or bi-fold card 'stand ups' that delegates can keep on their desks. He has also used business card software to produce laminated cards that can be put onto key rings.

Bryan Edwards suggests trainers 'posterise' key messages from a workshop and place them around the work area to remind people. "Make the handouts appropriate for the audience," he adds. "For example, people on the move need pocket-sized aids."

The point, says Rus Slater, is to think like a delegate when designing handouts. "I ask myself, what handouts would I want if I was a delegate, not what handouts do I want to produce as a trainer."


ABC Training Solutions Ltd:
National School of Government:
RapidBI Ltd:

Dawn Smith is a freelance writer and founding partner of The Final Word, a copywriting, translation and web marketing agency.


Get the latest from TrainingZone.

Elevate your L&D expertise by subscribing to TrainingZone’s newsletter! Get curated insights, premium reports, and event updates from industry leaders.


Thank you!