Speakers, when should you distribute handouts: Before or after?

Audience members like to take notes on your handouts, but they might be competing for the audience’s attention while you speak.

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They can listen to you, read your PowerPoint slides, or peruse the handouts you distributed prior to your speech. They can’t do all three at once.

Research finds that when audience members have to choose between looking or listening, they tend to look. The eye beats the ear. And if they’re reading, they’re not listening.

For that reason, many public speaking coaches teach their clients not to distribute copies of their PowerPoint presentations—or any takeaway notes—until after they’ve concluded their presentations. After all, why make it even harder for the audience to focus on your presentation?

Plus, many speakers want to keep at least some suspense in their talks and prefer not to let their audiences get too far ahead of them.

I’ve generally subscribed to that view, and have advised clients to not compete against themselves by distributing notes in advance.

But a funny thing has happened twice over the past month. Two clients for whom I was giving a speech told me they didn’t like that approach and asked me to give their trainees the takeaway notes at the beginning so they could take notes on them during the session.

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