The perfect handout

I was watching a colleague preparing a presentation the other day. (I know, it took all that was within in me but I did just sit and watch. Oh, okay, inwardly I was in turmoil but he seemed happy in his task.) He worked hard on his 65 slides, each full of images and text and he was constantly adding bits of text here and there until at last, it was complete. Innocently, I asked, “Why is there so much text?” He replied with a intensity of purpose, “It makes the perfect handout. This is all they need to know.”

I respect his commitment, his desire to share knowledge, his enthusiasm to transfer it during his 15 minute session and his ability to cram information into a single image. I just don’t believe it works. 

My challenge to this “perfect handout” approach is multiple. 

The printout will never does justice to the preparation. Unless you print out one slide per side of paper, the value is immediately lost. At a lower resolution, it may as well be in Japanese for the ability to read and decipher the images.  At maximum size however we are talking about a 65 sheet deep booklet. That’s a ream of paper for every seven in the audience. Extrapolate for a semester’s worth of lectures for 100 students and you can see where Staple’s profit margin comes from. 

If you are handing out the “perfect handout” it probably won’t need addition but most students will want to at least read along with you and perhaps annotate things as they go. Leaving aside the fact that this means giving all your good stuff out at the beginning to facilitate this it is also incumbent on the students not to read ahead. Or to go back and try and catch up. All at the same time as you are reading this out. Probably verbatim. Which is unlikely to hold their attention.

Moreover, if this is in fact the “perfect handout”, the astute student will question why they have to attend in the first place. One might counter that additional material will be delivered by the presenter. Of course the counter counter argument is that this additional material should be in the handout if it is perfect. And to annotate this additional material will take concentration away from the presenter once again.

And we all know how this is going to end.

My suggestions. Make the perfect handout available, but not immediately and not on paper. This is the 21st Century and The Cloud will store everything rather beautifully and save both printing costs and a few forests. Put all your best stuff together, if that’s how you think this should go down, add weblinks, pdfs, video whatever you feel will complement your talk and your insights. The latter is important. Textbooks are invaluable but it is your insights and distillation that is being sought. Make it personal.  Dangle a download option like a carrot at the beginning of the session to dissuade them from recording your every word and offer them with a url at the end if their interest has been sufficiently raised.

Now you are free to communicate, not simply transfer the “perfect handout.”

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