Handling Forward References

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You've probably heard this phrase from a speaker before: "I'll get back to that later." I'm not talking about the situations where this is in reaction to a question from the audience but about the cases where it's uttered during the planned part of a presentation.

Having had to sit through a presentation where this phrase came up a lot recently, I was wondering about when this might be acceptable and when it's not.

In general, I'd say that these sort of forward references are not a bad thing, if done in moderation. Sometimes, you simply need to discuss something else first before you can go into the details of a topic; so pointing this out to the audience is actually a good thing: "I know, you probably want to hear more about this right now, but it's important that we discuss this other aspect first." In fact, I often use this technique deliberately to show something surprising at the beginning of a presentation and then explain why and how it works later on, after I laid some of the groundworks that help understand it better.

Also, you sometimes have circular references in your topic, i.e. it doesn't matter whether you'd explain A or B first - one would always refer to the other anyway. Although this is something that you should carefully analyse. Maybe that's just what everybody thinks about the topic and there's a new way to explain things hiding in there somewhere. Don't give up on circular references too easily.

Thinking back to the specific presentation that triggered me to write this, though, I must say that most of the forward references were unnecessary and just showed that the speaker hadn't really thought his presentation through. When we finally came to the pre-announced parts, they were quickly glossed over; which made me wonder why they weren't integrated in the earlier part - or even left out entirely, since they didn't provide a lot of additional insight.

Try pulling the content forward

So when you find yourself referring your audience to later parts of your presentation, stop and carefully consider:

Why are you doing this? Is it really worth coming back to that topic later? Will you really provide additional insights at that later point?

Could you not include the "later" content right now? You may have a specific way to present your content in mind but just play along for a moment and consider the possibilities of changing the order. Would it help your audience to hear this now instead of later?

Pulling that later content forward may completely change the structure of the rest of your presentation, but if it's for the benefit of your audience, it should be worth the extra work.

(Image Credit: Back to the Future: Oops by Brian Neudorff, from Flickr, CC-BY)

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Creative Commons Licence "Handling Forward References" by Dirk Haun is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International Licence.