Handouts or no handouts for your speech – what’s best?

Updated to Business on January 2, 2023.

When I mostly taught seminars, I always had handouts. Pounding away on my laptop, I’d work late into the night fiddling with fonts, images, and graphics to make pretty handouts for my audience the next day.

It was a lot of work. And, invariably two things would happen:

1 – There would be a mistake (after all, it’s tough to do your best work when half-asleep), and

2 – I was stuck having to follow the script laid out on the handouts – instead of ad-libbing as I responded to the audience’s needs.

As I migrated to primarily delivering keynotes, I noticed handouts were not the norm – in fact, it’s rare to see a keynote speaker (who, ironically, gets paid much more than the handout-hauling seminar leaders) use handouts.

So I dropped them.

The question is when do you need handouts?

When to use handouts?

Seminars are for “learning”, keynotes are for starting the learning.

Of course, any keynoter worth their lavaliere will tell you they have content. The reality is it’s pretty tough to deliver sticky content in 60 minutes, from a stage, with no handouts and no follow-up. I’ve tried.

If you teach a seminar or deliver breakout sessions at conferences you will have more success if you supply handouts that have the absolute minimum amount of content. Too much content, fill-in-the-blanks, or supporting articles and delegates aren’t paying attention to you.

For a 90 minute to 3 hour seminar I might have 4 pages – just enough for them to follow the lesson, do a bit of journaling, but always be paying attention to what I’m teaching.

An example of 2 page handouts


Over time, I started to introduce a “light” version of my handouts into my keynotes. The trick is I have to completely cover what’s in front of them or they feel ripped off. The handouts are usually 2 pages and allow me acres of room to go on tangents while still covering what’s in front of them.

If you’re still not sure, maybe this rule will help.

A rule to go by

If you know handouts will help delegates learn your lessons better and remember you – have handouts.

And if you know handouts will impress your event planner and they’ll love you even more – definitely have handouts.

At the end of the day, you’re there to make something happen after the event is over. Anything you can do to further that goal is worth doing.