On Memes and Sources, and A Tip For Presenters

Am I the only person who grumbles when presenters (or writers) make interesting claims but provide no source/evidence?

In Conversation is the New Attention, Christopher Fahey (@ChrisFahey) and Timothy Meany (@TimothyMeany) argue that “public speaking technology” can and should be improved because conferences are broken.  What do they mean by “public speaking technology”?

(a) gathering people in a room, (b) giving the speaker(s) a microphone and a projector, and (c) allowing the audience to ask questions at the end.

This is what I call “sage on a stage” and it is an age-old conference format with a technological supplement, the projector. And criticism of that format, at least for “learning”, is a century-old [1]:

Ever since John Dewey explored hands-on learning at the University of Chicago Laboratory School more than a century ago, lecture-style presentations have been criticized as old-fashioned and ineffective.

Thus, Fahey and Meany have not identified a new problem. However, they have tried to develop a “technological solution” to the problem, a web-based application, Donahue, that they believe can unseat the “sage on the stage” presentation form.

The Donahue digital archive of their SXSW presentation is a nice artifact. I logged in with Twitter and began reading the points they had made (looking like one-at-a-time speaker notes) and the corollary response Tweets.

This is where I stubbed my toe, so to speak:

Bullet points were invented in 1956 by Arnold “Korky” Kaulakis at Esso, & were called Korky dots (point 34)

It’s not that I didn’t believe them, it’s that I wanted to know more. But when I stuck <Arnold “Korky” Kaulakis dots> into Google, what I got back was Tweets and blog posts referencing their SWSW presentation!

When I changed the search query to <esso “Korky” dots> I hit pay dirt. (Who else had forgotten that Esso would become Exxon?)

SociableMedia has published a page from the October 1982 The Record, a quarterly publication for employees of the Eastern Regional Exxon Company (SociableMedia pdf, local copy), that provides context for their claim:

In 1956, Kaulakis became manager of employee relations at Exxon Research and Engineering. His project was to organize a centralized recruiting manual. “It was during this period,” Kaulakis recalls, “that we came up with new formats including the extensive use of bullets to highlight key ideas.”

In 1958, Kaulakis was named director of Process Research Division and developed a new writing style manual, wherein the use of the dot was prescribed and proclaimed. The dot eventually worked its way into all technical reports and presentations and was affectionately dubbed the “Korky dot.”

This post isn’t about the merits of their claim that Kaulakis “invented” the bullet point. Instead, I’m arguing that in this era of hyperlinks, Fahey and Meany should have sourced their factoid. I should not have needed Google.

Here’s my meme:

Any technology designed to enhance speaker-audience interaction should also prompt speakers to document their claims.

We know that technology can shape outcomes: just look at Powerpoint and how its architecture and built-in themes have shaped presentations, especially those for inside-the-company audiences. This is not a “shoot the tool” rant but an acknowledgement that the tool can shape outcomes. (When your only tool is a hammer, all of your problems look like nails.)

Fahey and Meany are arguing that presenters should “bulletize” (my verb) their talks by articulating Tweetable soundbites even though they also say throw away your bullets!

Instead, with Donahue, we chose to embrace Twitter, to make speakers tweet their ideas (which we call “points”) to the world as they speak—and to encourage their audiences, whether in the room or not, to respond to and propagate those ideas. Participants using Donahue are limited to viewing only the speaker’s points and the Twitter conversations of those who choose to focus on the event itself, filtering out the rest of the Twitter universe and keeping the participants centered on the speaker’s ideas. (emphasis added)

They are arguing for the primacy of text; their SXSW presentation had 80 such “points.” I would love to know what happened on the stage: were they “naked” or did they use the projector? If they used a projector, did they show the live audience Donahue or traditional “slides”?

I applaud arguments that puncture the primacy of the “sage on a stage” method of presentation. (I believe it has a place just not the place.) Likewise I resist arguments that suggest there is one and only one way to give a talk. There is a time for the “naked” talk. There is a time for the “Zen” talk. There is a time for the “bulleted” talk. Different audiences, different venues, different goals.

But for each and every one of them, there should be sourcing.

  • Sourcing adds credibility
  • Sourcing acknowledges the works of others
If I have seen a little further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants. – Sir Isaac Newton


[1] In this report, “lecture-style” classroom pedagogy is shown to be directly correlated with improved math and science scores for 8th graders.

Contrary to contemporary pedagogical thinking, we find that students score higher on standardized tests in the subject in which their teachers spent more time on lecture-style presentations than in the subject in which the teacher devoted more time to problem-solving activities. For both math and science, a shift of 10 percentage points of time from problem solving to lecture-style presentations (e.g., increasing the share of time spent lecturing from 20 to 30 percent) is associated with an increase in student test scores of 1 percent of a standard deviation. Another way to state the same finding is that students learn less in the classes in which their teachers spend more time on in-class problem solving.


These patterns are consistent with the findings of a 1997 study by Dominic Brewer and Dan Goldhaber, which found that more in-class problem solving for American 10th-grade students in math is related to lower test scores on a standardized test.


Given the limitations of the data, our finding that spending increased time on lecture-style teaching improves student test scores results should not be translated into a call for more lecture-style teaching in general. But the results do suggest that traditional lecture-style teaching in U.S. middle schools is less of a problem than is often believed.

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One thought on “On Memes and Sources, and A Tip For Presenters

  1. Pingback: The Look « doug – off the record

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