Training Tip Number 7: Should You Have Handouts?

Should you give the audience handouts?

A simple question deserves a simple answer:

Yes, nearly always.

There are many reasons for this.  The simplest is that at least a few audience members, perhaps many, will consider the failure to provide some written accompaniment to be evidence of apathy and/or laziness.  Apathetic slacker is not the image most of us want to project.

However, handouts are not merely an appearance issue.  Well-done handouts enhance audience understanding and increase the chance they will retain your message.  They are also a basic courtesy for the audience, freeing them from the frantic scramble to write down every important thing you say.  (You will be saying important things, right?).

Excuses for Lack of Handouts

Excuse 1: I want the audience to be paying attention to me while I’m speaking, not a handout.

I call this the narcissist excuse.  Few presenters are capable of constructing such enthralling handouts, but even if you are one of this talented group, is it really so bad if people learn the material from your handout instead of your eloquent voice? 

In any event, if you think your handouts are really that extraordinary, why not distribute them after your talk, instead of at the beginning?  If you take this approach, be sure to let the audience know at the beginning of your remarks, so they won’t feel a need to take duplicative notes.

Excuse 2: Handouts will dilute the value of my jokes or other surprises. 

This excuse has a silver lining of sorts: At least the presenter is trying to keep the audience engaged and believes their material is good enough to deserve protection.

However, in this situation it is possible to have the best of both worlds:

Again, there’s no law against distributing your handouts at the end of your talk.  Be sure to alert the audience when you begin speaking that you will have handouts, so they don’t feel obligated to write down every word you say.

Another approach is to distribute an edited version of the material at the beginning. Good slideshow software facilitates preparing a redacted version of your remarks.  You can create a separate version of your slide show that omits the surprise-killing slides.  This still requires a little extra work, but it’s worth it if you have high quality jokes or other surprises.

Excuse 3: Distributing handouts will make the audience remember the presentation better, so I can’t use the same material next year.

Wow!  This is my absolute favorite excuse.  There’s so much wrong with it that I don’t know where to start. 

Isn’t helping the audience remember what you are saying the whole point?  This excuse tacitly admits that handouts increase audience retention of the material.  Isn’t that’s a good thing, instead of a bad thing?

Audiences receiving compliance-oriented training should not have to suffer the same canned presentations every year.  This approach is no more attractive by delivering the material in a quasi-stealth manner, withholding handouts that might help the audiences remember the material. 

A key objective of this series of Training Tips is to empower ethics trainers so that coming up with fresh, engaging material each year does not seem like an overwhelming challenge.  We will be distributing our ideas in future columns, and we solicit your suggestions in the Comments section below.

Training Tip 6: Lessons from Movie New Year’s Eve

New Year's Eve Poster.jpg

We begin the new year seeking inspiration from an oldie-but-goodie 2011 movie, New Year’s Eve. Despite its star-studded cast that included Robert DeNiro, Hillary Swank, Michelle Pfeiffer,  Halle Berry, Ashton Krutcher and many others, this movie met with critical disdain (including a pathetic 7% rating at Rotten Tomatoes) and limited success at the box office. A romantic comedy in the Love, Actually and Valentine’s Day mode, it was less successful than those films.

One part of the movie met with success, at least in this quarter. Near the middle of the movie, the machinery that raises and lowers the ball for the iconic Times Square ball drop turns balky. The assembled crowd is worried that their fun will be spoiled.

The character portrayed by Hillary Swank is asked to take the microphone and give the crowd an update. Everyone is expecting reassurance. The Swank character provides more: Inspiration. She goes beyond the immediate crisis to exhort the audience to approach the holiday in the right way. The audience received not just reassurance but vision:

And as you all can see, the ball has stopped half way to its perch. it’s suspended there to remind us before we pop the champagne and celebrate the new year, to stop, and reflect on the year that has gone by, to remember both our triumphs and our missteps, our promises made and broken, the times we opened ourselves up to great adventures… or closed ourselves down for fear of getting hurt, because that’s what new year’s all about , getting another chance, a chance to forgive. to do better, to do more, to give more, to love more, and to stop worrying about what if… and start embracing what will be. so when that ball drops at midnight, and it will drop, let’s remember to be nice to each other, kind to each other, and not just tonight but all year long.

IMDB.com

Let’s resolve that during the coming year, we’ll all try to give our audiences more. Let’s resolve to give students engaging material that will not just inform but inspire.

We will be doing the best we can to support you in this effort by providing useful resources through this Training Tips column.

Training Tip 5: What Not to Do (The Gettysburg Powerpoint Presentation)

Peter Norvig’s clever demonstration of how computer slideshow software would have mangled the Gettysburg Address provides more than its share of laughs, but there is also much to learn from it.

In an accompanying essay, Norvig seems to suggest that Powerpoint presentations are always bad.  Antipathy toward slide shows is understandable: A large majority of the ones I’ve seen have been poorly done. 

However, it’s important to keep things in perspective.  Slide shows are merely tools.  They can produce good results or bad results, depending on the skill of the workman. 

One of the goals of Training Tips is to help trainers make sure their presentation skills are workmanlike.  We will be devoting multiple columns toward helping you come up with high quality audiovisual aids, including slide shows. 

Training Tip 4: Mobile Learning Options

Fueled by the widespread adoption of smartphones, iPods and similar devices, Mobile Learning, aka MLearning, has become a major educational trend. Such training is frequently delivered in the form of “MP3” files, delivered through a mechanism known as “podcasts.” While Apple iPods, wonderful devices since discontinued) nearly any smartphone (iPhone, Droid, etc.) or personal computer can also play podcasts with the help of earphones or speakers. Podcast Insights has a section explaining the basics.

Many organizations are taking advantage of this new training vehicle. For example, the Legal Talk Network distributes podcasts of interest to lawyers, and legal technology guru Dennis Kennedy has an article about the value of listening to podcasts. Many other respected organizations use podcasts or MP3 files:

The latest POGO example is a lecture by the Office of Special Counsel’s (OSC) Adam Miles, who reviews OSC’s interaction with federal whistleblowers. This training was originally part of a series POGO provides to educate congressional staffers. Other podcasts from the same series are available.

The Office of Government Ethics has also at least put its toe into the water, having prepared a podcast of “the Senate-confirmed nominations process and video clips that provide scenarios for discussion during training sessions on ethics restrictions on seeking employment.”

We see the biggest value of podcasts as a low-cost, low-hassle supplement to the rest of your ethics program, including a way of reaching certain “high value targets” like senior managers, many of whom are into multi-tasking. With so many prestigious organizations using them successfully for other training, this appears to be an area with enormous untapped potential.

Training Tip 3: Never Complain, Never Explain?

Have you observed trainers doing things like this?

Before beginning her presentation, a trainer tells the audience, “I had planned to show you this wonderful video with actors from The Office singing this song “Let’s Get Ethical,” to the tune of “Let’s Get Physical.”  Unfortunately, I can’t get the DVD to work, so I can’t show it, but let me tell you, it would be really funny if you could see it.”

Yes, I actually saw a trainer do just this a few years ago. This example brings to mind the “Never complain, never explain” rule.  I’ve seen this pithy saying variously attributed to Benjamin Disraeli, Henry Ford and Katherine Hepburn.  Regardless of the originator, it always struck me as a little dubious.  “Never?”  Isn’t that a recipe for being a jerk?

However, with a little adjustment for rhetorical excess, this saying does describe a sound principle for instructors.  It’s nearly always a mistake to apologize to the audience.  In the example described, the trainer was smart to try to use a training aid, but when that did not pan out, she unwisely demonstrated to the audience not just her incompetence with technology, but her poor judgment. If she had never apologized for failing to get the DVD to work, the audience would never have known of her failure.  Experienced presenters understand that in many cases the audience will never know if the speaker made a mistake unless he or she draws attention to the error by apologizing.

The same principle applies to other mistakes made during your presentation, explains speech expert Richard Zeoli:

When you make a mistake, no one cares but you:  Even the most accomplished public speaker will make mistakes. Yet it is important to remember that the only one who cares about any given mistake is the one doing the speaking.

People’s attention spans constantly wander.  In fact, most people only absorb about 20 percent of a speaker’s message.  The other 80 percent is internalized visually.  This ratio is true in nearly everything: a football game, a favorite television show, and even a heart-to-heart conversation.  The point is that when you make a mistake, the audience rarely even notices.  The most important thing a speaker can do after making a mistake is to keep going.  Don’t stop and – unless the mistake was truly earth shattering – never apologize to the audience for a minor slip.  Unless they are reading the speech during your delivery, the audience won’t know if you left out a word, said the wrong name, or skipped a page.

“Never” apologize?  Probably a mistake.  “Almost never” apologize?  Sounds about right.

Training Tip 2: Presentations for Dummies

Since the publication many years ago of Dan Gookin’s DOS for Dummies, the first book in the successful  Dummies line of technical books, I’ve been ambivalent about the company’s naming and marketing strategy.  However, when a book’s content is good enough, who cares about the name?


When I began giving important presentations in the mid-90s, I was not the world’s most confident public speaker. I pretty much read, or at least surveyed, just about every instructional book I could find.  Presentations for Dummies was by far the best practical reference I found, and I have not encountered a better book since.

While “humor consultant” author Malcolm Kushner includes some technical information (including obscure-but-useful tips), he focuses on human factors and practical pointers.  The current edition is a revision of the 1996 original (“Successful Presentations for Dummies”).  These links to the Dummies.com website provide examples of Kushner’s down-to-earth approach:

Chapter 13, on fielding audience questions, is available in PDF format.

Google Product Search has information on multiple places the book can be purchased.

Training Tip 1: Studies Prove Positive Approach Pays Dividends

How many times have you attended training where the trainer seemed nervous, skeptical, just going through the motions, or otherwise acting like they just didn’t want to be there?  Perhaps there were attempts at self-deprecating humor, like referring to how much coffee the trainer would need to get through the training?

When we pause for reflection, we intuitively realize that trainer behavior like this cannot be good.  An article by Dr. Brian Fitch for police trainers in the December 2010 FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin entitled “Attitudes and Performance: The Impact of Self-Fulfilling Prophecies” explains that multiple scientific studies confirm what our intuition tells us:

Hundreds of studies have demonstrated that, on average, educators’ assumptions do influence the actions and achievements of their pupils. If teachers anticipate that students will succeed, they usually do. On the other hand, when they expect learners to perform poorly, they often are not disappointed. In either case, pupils rise to the level of teacher expectations—either positive or negative. Generally speaking, trainers who anticipate more from students by setting higher standards, providing encouragement, and offering positive feedback inspire higher levels of performance than those who lack faith in the ability and motivation of their charges.

While the earliest studies began with school-age children, subsequent research has examined the role of instructor suppositions with salespeople, athletes, pilots, law enforcement officers, and military personnel. [Footnote omitted].

Perhaps the most instructive message in Dr. Fitch’s article is the emphasis on non-verbal communications from instructor:

Studies in communication and psychology have suggested that people rely on three channels to convey their emotions.

  • Verbal (words and phrases)
  • Paralanguage (tone, pitch, and volume)
  • Nonverbal (facial expressions, eye contact, hand gestures, posture, and distance)

What is surprising, however, is the relatively minor role played by the spoken word in communicating emotion. In fact, communication studies have indicated that the majority of emotions, including how instructors truly feel about a student’s performance and potential, are communicated nonverbally. More specifically, fully 55 percent of the emotional impact of a communicator’s message is nonverbal, with 38 percent accounted for by paralanguage and only 7 percent explained by spoken words.

The apparent power of nonverbal communication reinforces the importance of sending consistent messages. When instructors say one thing but broadcast a different message nonverbally, they invariably undermine the credibility of their communication. For example, law enforcement firearms trainers can significantly undermine their effectiveness by telling students that anyone can shoot well while, at the same time, displaying subtle cues of frustration, such as exhaling deeply, looking disgusted, or speaking in a patronizing voice to recruits having trouble attaining a qualifying score.

Students, however, are surprisingly adept at picking up nonverbal cues, such as subtle changes in facial expression, eye contact, posture, or tone of voice. If instructors send mixed messages, learners invariably will pay greater attention to the nonverbal one, especially if it is negative. [Emphasis added, footnotes omitted]:

Fitch, “Attitudes and Performance: The Impact of Self-Fulfilling Prophecies

Of course, these instructional principles apply just as well to standards of conduct training.  If your body language and other cues send the message that the training will be boring and worthless, you are creating a self-fulfilling prophesy.  You must make sure your nonverbal communications are not undermining your verbal training message. 

Mere awareness of this potential trap should go a long way toward preventing the problem.  In future Training Tips columns we will address methods for building confidence and other techniques that should further strengthen performance.  In the meantime, we welcome your suggestions in the Comments section below.

Training Tips Introduction

Are you a good trainer? Many people approach training with trepidation, which leads to poor results. We will be providing a weekly collection of Training Tips to help increase trainer confidence. These posts supplement our Presentations category.

Why am I well qualified to provide training tips? Because I consider myself to have minimal aptitude for training, I have studied the art of training extensively, and gotten good results.