I'll get back to that later

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In an article for The Next Web, author Boris has a list of 10 things you should never say during presentations. I agree with most of them, including (especially, actually) his bonus tip about not going over time.

And then there's the one that I initially wasn't so sure about:

2: I'll get back to that later.
If you happen to stumble upon an audience that is eager to learn and interact you should always grab that chance and enjoy it. If someone has a question that you will address in a later slide just skip to it right away! If someone is brave enough to raise their hand and ask you a question you should compliment them and invite the rest of the audience to do the same. Don’t delay anything.

As a presenter, you can probably sympathise: You've carefully built your story arc, slowly revealing one argument after the other in order to get to your main point. And then, suddenly, someone in the audience wants you to jump ahead and forfeit your carefully planned storyline. How irritating! So of course your first reaction would be to tell them to "just wait, I'll get there eventually", not realising how frustrating it could be for them.

So, should you give up your meticulously planned buildup just because of one impatient audience member? I'd say it depends. What you can (and probably should) do is acknowledge that this is in fact where you're heading at. It will at least give the person the satisfaction of getting it - and getting it way ahead of other members of the audience.

And this is the main point here: What about the rest of the audience? Are you going too slow for them, too? Or is it just this one person who's ahead of everybody else in the room?

Note that Boris mentions an audience that is eager to learn. So he's not talking about that one person who's ahead of everyone else (and there's one of those in every audience); he's talking about the entire audience in that room at that point.

So how can you find out if it's really only this one person or if you're going to slow for all (or most) of them?

In a way, when this happens, it's also an indication that you may not have prepared properly. Did you research your audience before the talk? You may be trying to give an introductory talk to an experienced audience.

My suggestions would be:

  • In any case, acknowledge what the person asked and that this is what you're getting at. Even if this is the only person in the room thinking this far ahead, this may now help the others to better understand your points.
  • If you're unsure whether this person represents the majority in the room - ask them. Remember, the audience comes first. If they feel you're going too slow, then by all means go faster and jump ahead.
  • In some cases, you may actually have something prepared that you feel is important to be mentioned first. Given the current situation, consider if this is still worth doing, i.e. not jumping ahead (and try not to let your ego get in the way, as in "I've put so much effort into preparing this ..."). If you still feel it's important, then at least go through the rest quickly to get to that point.

As always: Your audience comes first. If you find out that you're going too slow for them, then dump your prepared content (and your ego) and give them what they want. If, as a result, you find that you're running out of material to talk about, start the questions earlier and see if anything interesting comes up that's worth talking about in more depth, now that you know your audience better.

And don't worry about appearing to be unprepared. You would leave a far worse impression if you'd stick to your prepared presentation and underwhelm or even bore your audience.

(Image Credits: "stop ahead stop" by istolethetv, from Flickr)

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Creative Commons Licence "I'll get back to that later" by Dirk Haun is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International Licence.