Malcolm Gladwell: why oral data’s different

Why would you present data orally instead of in print? You might think that if all you have is data, why bother with the sweaty palms? Just post the paper online and let people read it!

Not if you want to test your conclusions. Oral and written renditions have different effects, and elicit different responses.

Malcolm Gladwell told how he realized this on an always interesting podcast, the Ezra Klein Show.

Here’s Gladwell’s explanation almost verbatim, starting at 57:25.

My father taught math and would be constantly going off to conferences. I was always very skeptical.

I thought, What possible value is there for him to go and present a paper when they could just send someone the paper? It’s equations! Isn’t it just easier to just read the equation! My father’s going to Istanbul this summer because they all want vacations in Istanbul.

But now I realize that there is a reason there’s so much emphasis in academia on person to person oral presentation of arguments, data, etc. When it’s presented in oral form it’s so easier to honor the conditionality of the work. To argue with it, to fix, to backtrack, to amend, to do all those things. The minute it’s on paper it has a kind of permanence and authority that maybe it doesn’t deserve.

…Whenever I read an academic paper, I try to imagine the author presenting it orally. And that helps me to not jump in head over heals with some of the conclusions. Just to imagine their voice when they came to the conclusions! In every conclusion in an academic paper, there’s a point where they recognize all the potential problems with the conclusion. This may not be true because of A, B, and C.

When you’re reading it, you skip over that. You know, “yeah, yeah, I’m not interested. I just want to know what the conclusion is.” But if they were presenting it, you know you’d that should be a crucial point of the presentation. Everyone in the room is waiting for you to go through all the reasons it might not be true. That’s where the discussion’s going to begin.

So the very thing that’s almost principle importance in an oral presentation is an afterthought when it’s on the page.

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