Home opinion-and-analysis Open Sauce LCA 2011: The awesome power of the spoken word

LCA 2011: The awesome power of the spoken word

Among the open source legions, Dirk Hohndel stands out in one way. Among the hundreds of speakers who have delivered words of wisdom at the Australian national Linux conferences over the last four years, he is probably the only person to depend solely on his speaking prowess to do so.

Hohndel (pic below) spoke at the LCA in Melbourne in 2008, his topic being how one could make hardware vendors love open source.

The talk was delivered from the lectern, with masterful ease, demonstrating well that here was a man who knew his subject inside out, liked it a great deal and, what's more, actually understood everything that he was talking about.

There were no charts, no slides, no intrusion of lists with bullet points. Hohndel, quite literally, scaled the peak on his own. And he held his audience spellbound; nodbody even coughed right through that presentation.

Dirk Hohndel

And he was so aware of what he had spoken about that, after reading through my three-page report of his talk, he found one little error and tapped me on the back to point it out while we were waiting for one of the keynotes to start. It was one time when it was a pleasure to make a correction.

Hohndel, who works for Intel as the chief of technology for Linux and open source, is back at the LCA this year, but sadly he isn't presenting a paper. I use the word advisedly because it is a pleasure to see someone who can talk intelligently, instead of one who mumbles and depends on slides to make the point(s).

I ran into Hohndel at the 12th LCA in Brisbane this morning and reminded him of what some would term an anomaly - the fact that he is the only case I have encountered over the last four years who has abhorred those painful PowerPoint-like slides.

He was highly amused that I remembered this trait. Yes, he said, he never used slides because that made it difficult for people to focus on what the speaker was trying to impart.

"You can use some graphics if you wish but using text on screen and then speaking alongside that ensures that the audience will focus on one or the other and a lot of what you want to convey gets lost," he said.

The use of slides - which some term the PowerPoint disease - has progressed in leaps and bounds among the FOSS community and everyone who gives a presentation, great or small, has a number of slides which necessarily have to be gone through.

Hohndel pointed me to the work of Professor Edward Tufte, the American statistician and professor emeritus of political science, statistics and computer science at Yale University, who coined the word chartjunk.

It refers to "useless, non-informative, or information-obscuring elements of quantitative information displays."

Prof Tufte has also criticised the way in which PowerPoint is used, in his essay "The Cognitive Use of PowerPoint."

But that seems to escape most speakers at tech conferences these days, including those at the LCAs. Hohndel, indeed, appears to be one of a disappearing breed.



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Sam Varghese

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A professional journalist with decades of experience, Sam for nine years used DOS and then Windows, which led him to start experimenting with GNU/Linux in 1998. Since then he has written widely about the use of both free and open source software, and the people behind the code. His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.