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The Humble History of the "Bullet"

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2011 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Vancouver, BC

Publication Date

June 26, 2011

Start Date

June 26, 2011

End Date

June 29, 2011



Conference Session

Communication: From Pecha Kucha to Bullets

Tagged Division

Liberal Education/Engineering & Society

Page Count


Page Numbers

22.1462.1 - 22.1462.14



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Paper Authors


Kathryn A. Neeley University of Virginia

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Kathryn A. Neeley is an Associate Professor in the Department of Science, Technology, and Society in the School of Engineering and Applied Science at the University of Virginia. Her research uses cultural history of science and technology to gain a critical perspective on contemporary communication practices.

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Michael Alley Pennsylvania State University

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Michael Alley is an Associate Professor of engineering communication at Pennsylvania State University. He is the author of The Craft of Scientific Presentations (Springer, 2003) and performs research on effectiveness of different slide structures at communicating engineering and science.

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The Humble History of the “Bullet”On August 14, 1984, Robert Gaskins of Forethought, Inc. proposed a new software product hecalled “Presenter.” The initial product proposal indicates that Presenter was designed tosimultaneously improve presentation quality, provide presenters with independence, and savetime and money for individuals and organizations. By the time of PowerPoint’s 20th “birthday”in 2004, the meaning of the word “PowerPoint” had expanded and evolved in ways that are bothdramatic and telling: from referring to a specific presentation software package to beingsynonymous with a genre of presentation characterized by—and often demonized because of—the pervasive use of bulleted lists.Numerous writers, including ourselves, have critiqued bulleted lists, advocated alternative slidedesigns, and encountered significance resistance to the alternatives. And while the limitations ofbulleted lists have been fully explored, the history of the humble bullet has yet to be charted indetail. This paper delineates that history with the aim of drawing inferences that can supportintelligent use of bulleted lists in presentations and documents. Our investigation thus farsuggests the following: 1. Bullets emerged in the early 1950s as a typographical device used to define a discrete portion of text and evolved into a distinctive genre of communication called the “bullet point” 2. The ambiguity inherent in bulleted lists is both a strength and a weakness, depending on the context of their use 3. Bulleted lists are generally perceived as a device for managing information overload, although there are questions about the extent to which they function that way 4. The history of the bulleted list as a communication technology conforms to the pattern laid out by William Powers in Hamlet’s Blackberry (2010). Specifically, such technologies a. Emerge to meet needs, exploit potential, and solve problems b. Encourage extravagant hopes in some, are greeted with skepticism by others c. Enter a period of “maximalist” use in which it may appear they will completely eclipse earlier technologies that served similar purposes d. Become so pervasive that they are experienced as menacing or subversive and become the focus of intense criticism e. In a parallel development, become a marker of group identity and associated with a particular set of values, assumptions, and beliefs (culture) f. Settle into a pattern of use that exploits the distinct advantages of the new tool but retains older tools for some tasksThe history of bullets should help establish the general parameters of such a pattern.

Neeley, K. A., & Alley, M. (2011, June), The Humble History of the "Bullet" Paper presented at 2011 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Vancouver, BC. 10.18260/1-2--18810

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