There are quite a number of blogs and websites focusing on presentations. One of the best is Olivia Mitchell’s Speaking about Presenting. In her posts Olivia provides lots of useful tips and ideas for presenters and her readers often comment on the posts, sometimes opening up an interesting debate.

In a recent post about presentation handouts, it was recommended that they’re distributed at the beginning of the presentation. This is somewhat controversial as many presenters prefer to give them out after they’ve finished speaking. The recommendation is justified by reference to some recent research involving University students.

The posting has led to an interesting debate where a number of people have posted comments arguing against this. Olivia has subsequently acknowledged that there are circumstances where its better to distribute them after the event in a follow up post. It’s good to see someone taking on board comments and modifying their view rather than taking a dogmatic position. Well done Olivia!

First of all a few words about the research Olivia refers to. I haven’t read the paper that was published but I’ve looked at the abstract and read a summary that was published on the web by the British Psychological Society (BPS).  Now, we have to be careful when drawing conclusions from any research. The findings will depend on what exactly is being tested, the scope of the study  and the methodology used. In this case there are many contextual factors which could affect the findings and they are unlikely to be applicable to all circumstances. It seems that the research involved only two studies with groups of University students and that the materials concerned appear to have been copies of the lecture slides – not exactly conforming to Olivia’s recommendations regarding the format of good handouts. There are a number of comments made on the BPS blog posting questioning the study methodology. I personally have serious doubts about the validity of this study and don’t think the findings can be generalised to justify the need for handouts to be given out before a lecture or presentation. A lot more work, covering a wider range of situations and a more thorough methodology would be needed to win me over.

My own view on this is that it’s “horses for courses”. There are some circumstances where I’ll distribute material in advance of a presentation and others where the audience have the materials in advance or they’re handed out at the beginning of the session. It really depends on what I’m doing.

If I’m giving a talk to a conference or professional meeting, I don’t give out anything in advance. During my presentations I like to incorporate some element of “surprise” where I interact with the audience and “reveal” points during the presentation. If the audience had copies of the slides (or even a more detailed handout) in advance the effect is ruined. Also, my own experience is that if I’m listening to a presentation where I’ve been given the handout in advance I can’t help but flick ahead of the speaker – I think that would be the case with many other people too.  Anyone who does this is not listening to the speaker – they’re distracted. The counter argument is that if the speaker is interesting this won’t happen, but I’m not convinced.

A few times a year I give lectures to relatively large groups of students studying for a Masters degree. Quite a lot of them are from overseas and not everyone has good English language skills. In this case I do distribute notes at the beginning of the class. But they aren’t copies of the slides. They’re more detailed course notes that they need to read after the lecture. I may refer to specific sections during my talk, but don’t expect the students to sit reading them during the lecture. Even with a large group I try to interact with the audience, asking questions and trying to generate some discussion. I do worry that some of the overseas students may not follow everything I’m saying and that’s something I perhaps need to reflect on in the future.

A lot of my work involves teaching smaller groups (typically 8 to 12) on professional training courses. They’re very intense week long courses with an exam on the last day. There’s a lot to learn so we send out the course manuals a few weeks in advance hoping the delegates will spend some time working through the materials before the course. When I first started training (over 20 years ago now – time flies), the classroom sessions were like lectures where the delegates sat and listened. However, over the years I’ve changed my approach and now try to run them interactively. Due to the amount of material we have to get across its difficult to completely avoid lecturing, but I’m making a lot of effort to turn the classes into workshops wherever possible. Now as we go through the sessions, the majority of the delegates work through the manual, often highlighting sections and making additional notes, but they keep engaged due to the small group size and my approach (with a small group I can tell if anyone is drifting away). It does present some difficulties as I like to throw out questions – to keep the delegates listening and thinking (and stopping them nodding off!). If they have the answer in front of them this can defeat the object! I’ve been reflecting on this and one idea I’ve come up with is to look at modifying the materials so they become more of a workbook with spaces for classroom exercises and the like. It would take some work to modify the course notes, but it’s something I’m looking to try out in the near future.

My own experience suggests that it’s wrong to generalise about when to distribute materials. It really depends on the situation. We need to be flexible and adapt to circumstances.