Posters, Flip Charts, Whiteboards, and Handouts

Learning Objectives

  • Identify effective uses of posters, flip charts, and white boards in presentations.
  • Identify effective uses of handouts for presentations.


If you are presenting to a small audience, around a dozen people, you may choose to use a poster rather than PowerPoint. The focus of your poster should be to support your core message and can be left behind to remind those in attendance of your presentation after you have left. Posters should look professional (e.g., not handwritten), be visible to everyone in the room, and follow design rules covered later in this module. Before your presentation, you should ask whether posters must be hung or be free standing. For posters that will be hung from a wall, sturdy poster or matte boards will suffice. If your poster is going to be free standing or if you are going to use the same poster for multiple presentations, you should consider using a tri-fold display board.

Whiteboards and Flip Charts: Writing While Presenting

Man writing on a flip chart

This man is using a flip chart. Flip charts or whiteboards are particularly useful if you’re tracking audience input as part of your presentation.

Other text-based visual aids include whiteboards and flip charts. Both can be used to write or draw on during the presentation and should be used with several caveats. Writing during your presentation actually takes away from your speaking time, so make sure to factor this time increase into your speaking time. Speaking and writing at the same time can be tricky because the audience will have a difficult time processing what they are hearing when they are also trying to read what you write.

Additionally, if you are writing, you need to be careful not to turn your back on your audience, which is makes it harder for them to hear you and for you to connect with your audience. Legible handwriting that can be seen at a distance is of prime importance, so using these kinds of visual aids should be limited to small audiences. While some speakers write and draw to highlight important points, it takes an enormous amount of skill and practice. For those with less developed skills, flip charts are best limited to situations where audience input is necessary for the direction or continuation of the presentation.[1]


There are many schools of thought on the use of handouts during a presentation. The most common current practice is that the presenters provide a copy of their PowerPoint slides to the participants before or after the presentation. This practice is so common that some academic and professional conferences require presenters to submit their slides prior to the event so copies of the slides can be made for each attendee. Despite this prevailing trend, you should avoid using your slides as handouts because they serve different purposes. Using your presentation slides as the handout both shortchanges your slides and fails as a handout.

Handouts are best used to supplement the content of your talk. If you are providing statistical data, your slide may only show the relevant statistic focusing on the conclusion you want your audience to draw. Your handout, on the other hand, can contain the full table of data. If you need to show a complex diagram or chart, a handout will be more legible than trying to cram all that information on a slide. Since you need to simplify the data to make it understandable on a slide, the handout can contain the evidence for your message in a way that is legible, detailed, complex, and shows respect for the audience’s time and intelligence.[2]You don’t need to include everything in your talk, and you don’t need to pack all your information into your slides.

Write a handout document with as much detail as you want and keep the slides simple. Presenters often feel the need to display all the data and information they have so they will appear knowledgeable, informed, and thoroughly prepared. You can help ease this feeling by creating a handout with all the detailed data you wish, which leaves your slides open to focus on your key message.[3]

Crafting an appropriate handout will take additional time for the presenter, but doing so will result in a takeaway document that will stand on its own and a slide show that focuses on effective visual content. Duarte (2008) and Tufte (2003) recommend handouts only for dense, detailed information. Reynolds (2009) expands on this idea, noting that your handout needs to be complete enough to stand in your place since you won’t be there to present the information or answer questions.

When to distribute handouts is also heavily debated. So common is the practice of providing handouts at the beginning of a presentation that it may seem wrong to break the convention. It is important to understand, however, that if people have paper in front of them while you are speaking, their attention will be split between the handout, your other visual aids, and your words. To counter this split, you might consider distributing handouts as they are needed during the presentation and allowing time for people to review them before continuing on.[4] This option may not be viable for shorter presentations, and the interruption in the flow of the presentation may be hard to recover from. Unless having the documents in front of your audience is absolutely critical to the success of the presentation, handouts should be distributed at the end of the presentation.


  1. Duarte, Nancy. Resonate: Present Visual Stories that Transform Audiences. Wiley, 2010.
  2. Tufte, Edward R.. The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint: Pitching Out Corrupts Within. Graphics Press, 2006.
  3. Reynolds, Garr. Presentation Zen: Simple Ideas on Presentation Design and Delivery. Pearson Education, 2009.
  4. Vasile, Albert J. Speak with Confidence: A Practical Guide. Allyn and Bacon, 2004.