Analysis of a Speech by Alberto Cairo

Alberto Cairo is the head of the orthopedic program run by the International Committee of the Red Cross (the “ICRC”) in Afghanistan. A physiotherapist from Italy, he has been in Afghanistan for more than 20 years. During that time, he has helped thousands of Afghan landmine and accident victims. Not only has given them prosthetic limbs, he has given them hope. He has given them dignity.

Alberto’s story is poignant, hopeful and inspirational. I found it deeply moving. Please do watch. Following the clip is my analysis from the public speaking perspective.

There are profound life lessons that that we can learn from “Mr. Alberto”, as the thousands whom he has helped know him. There are also several things that we can learn from him about about public speaking.

  • In a succinct, 45-second opening, Alberto introduces himself and sets the stage for his talk. Introducing oneself can be a tricky proposition. You have to establish your credibility, but you don’t want to sound conceited. Alberto introduces himself with humility. I was particularly intrigued by his comment that his job is to make arms and legs, but in reality, it’s more than that.
  • The statement at 0:45 about how the ICRC’s work “wasn’t always like this” is a subtle but effective way to let us know that we will be going back in time to see how the ICRC arrived at its current policy.
  • At 1:00 Alberto begins a story (with several sub-stories) that runs through his talk and holds it together. Once again, we see the incredible power that stories have to reinforce our messages. Alberto could have brought out statistic after statistic of the number of people in Afghanistan who have lost limbs. He could have displayed charts and graphs. Instead, he chooses to tell a story that is, for the most part, about a few Afghanis whom he knows. In so doing, he etches his message in our minds.
  • Alberto uses high quality photographs to reinforce his message.
  • From 2:00 to 2:25, something unexpected happens. Alberto is visibly caught up in the emotion of recalling his experiences in Afghanistan. The great thing is that he acknowledges these emotions. He doesn’t apologize for them. He shows his humanity and willingness to be vulnerable in front of his audience. We can see that this is a man who deeply cares about the work that he is doing. And that makes us care.
  • Alberto’s gestures are natural and appropriate. He does not gesture a lot, but for me, this was in keeping with my impression of the kind of man he is – soft-spoken, humble. And yet, he clearly can use demonstrative gestures when the situation calls for it. For example, watch the very expressive gestures that he uses from 3:00 to 3:45 when recounting the incident of the bomb exploding as he returned from the mosque.

Alberto Cairo

  • Note the simple but effective description of the young boy trying to push his father in the wheelchair to safety (4:00 to 4:05). We are there with them in the street.
  • Alberto uses great facial expressions throughout his talk. I particularly enjoyed the part from 7:10 to 7:25 when he describes how he “lied” to his supervisors about only doing a few repairs on the prostheses every day.
  • Immediately after the part described in the point above, Alberto gets his first big, audience-wide laugh. Getting that laugh was very important. Sometimes, we have to give a presentation about a sombre subject. Amputees in Afghanistan certainly falls into this category. And yet, a talk that is “heavy” throughout can be emotionally draining for an audience. That’s why injecting appropriate humour now and then is so important; it gives the audience a break and energizes them for what comes next.
  • From 9:05 to 9:35, Alberto recounts the harrowing story of everyone fleeing the rose garden because of sudden fighting. When you hear him draw a deep breath at the end, you realize how frightening the experience must have been. But then Alberto immediately lightens the mood with the anecdote about Rafi saying that his father could run faster than him.
  • There is a nice pause at 10:07 to let the image sink in of father and son pushing the empty wheel chair. I would have even liked to see the pause continue a little longer.
  • From 10:10 to 10:20, we have, what is for me, one of two take-away lines from this talk: “Dignity cannot wait for better times.” Having a concise, concrete and moving statement is like placing an anchor in the minds of your audience. And the line is followed with a nice pause.
  • From 10:30 to 12:20, Alberto tells the story of Mahmoud asking him for a job so that he can better his life and the lives his family members. It is incredibly moving and Alberto tells it so well. And his gesture (starting at 11:10) of standing the way Mahmoud stood—head down and eyes lowered—made it that much more poignant.
  • From 12:25 to 14:20, we hear the “debate” between Alberto and his right-hand man, Najmuddin about whether Mahmoud could possibly work in the shop. There are some light-hearted moments during this part of the talk that are again welcome, given the moving story in the point above.
  • From 15:20 to 16:15, Alberto Cairo talks about the benefits of this new policy. He shows how it is producing concrete results.
  • At 16:15 is the other take-away statement from this speech: “Scraps of men do not exist.” What a memorable line!
  • From 16:50 to 17:00, we see but one example of Cairo’s incredible humility notwithstanding all that he has accomplished.
  • From 17:00 to 17:35, he shares his wish that other countries implement this approach because it is possible and not difficult. Basically, he is letting the audience know why it should care. This talk was given in Geneva and the audience likely included several people from international and humanitarian organizations working all around the world, so the topic would have been highly relevant for them.
  • From 17:35 to 18:45, Alberto Cairo tells a final, humorous story to help bring the talk to a conclusion on a high note. As I have many Italian friends, I particularly appreciated the part about “shouting like an Italian”. And then, to conclude by saying that he doesn’t know what the future holds, but that Najmuddin and his friends probably already have something in mind, was terrific.

This is a fantastic talk on so many levels. Although every speech can always be improved, the ideas that occurred to me as I watched are really just a few minor adjustments around the edges. Here are my thoughts on how the speech could be further polished:

  • At 5:07, Alberto Cairo shows a great slide of the streets of Kabul. We get a clear sense of the size and also the desolation. But the slide seems out of place here. I think it would be much more effective to show it around 3:30. That is the point at which Alberto begins to recount the story of Mahmoud and his son Rafi who were in the middle of the street, frantically trying get to safety. It would give a sense of the distance he had to cover and the desperation he must have felt.
  • Speaking of that slide, it went up at 5:07, but then Cairo goes on to talk about the people coming to the ICRC the next day and doing some repairs. Yet at 7:00, we see that the slide is still up. It didn’t have much to do with what Alberto was saying at the time. It would have been better to turn the screen black (like at 1:00) and have the audience focused on him. He is a wonderful speaker who can more than hold his own without slides.
  • Alberto Cairo is standing far back from the audience. You can see his position on the stage at 0:35 to 0:40 (and he even takes a half step backward). Now, to be fair, he had to remain in the centre of the red carpet because of the different camera angles, and I can understand that. However, in cases where you are not similarly constrained, it is always better to “shrink the distance” between you and the audience. So move up to the edge of the stage and, if you can, move with purpose from side to side to connect with the different sides of the room.
  • In one or two places, Alberto Cairo could have paused a bit longer to let the impact of his words linger. An example: From 8:10 to 8:25, he says, “A couple of times I crossed the front line in the very place where Mahmoud and his son were crossing. I tell you, it was something so sinister that I was astonished he could do it every day.” This is a powerful statement. I would have liked him to pause for a good two or three seconds to let the image sink in.

An impressive talk by an impressive man!

Image a low resolution screenshot from video above

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  1. Hi John,
    Thank you for this fantastic speech and for your analysis.
    I see passion and emotions from Alberto from 0.00 to 19.03!
    So, if you feel passion and emotion for your topic, do you do “the right things” even if don’t know anything about CC/CL/ACB/ACS et cetera?

    1. Hi Franco, thanks for the comment. Yes, it is a great speech from beginning to end.

      I am not sure that passion alone would produce such a polished speech. Alberto himself says (around 2:00 to 2:25) that he has given this talk many times, and I know that for a TED Talk, people rehearse multiple times. However, without the passion, the talk would have lost some of its effectiveness. As for doing the “right things”, having attended Toastmasters is certainly not a prerequisite. Toastmasters can be a great help to people become good public speakers, but it is just one route among several to reach that destination.

  2. This is simply an amazing man… 21 years of amazing service to mankind and the passion and humility comes across in such a nice way… Just an amazing speech. I have watched it 10 times and I get the same reaction every time.

  3. It has created a great emotion, so calm, simple words, clear images that brought me there in every single moment he was describing. Among the strong images he projected the one taken at the “home” of a patient sorrounded by sheeps, goats … once more underlining the importance of helping these people to gain their dignity.
    Definitely a lot to learn also from the TM point of view with the relevant P.F.I.: from you John.

    Thanks for bringing this up.


    1. Thank you, Francesco. I am glad that you liked the talk; it is a great one. But I have to confess … I am not sure what “P.F.I.” means. All the best for 2012.

      1. Hi John, Thanks for your comments. P.F.I. … points for improvement. We use this at our Club in order to avoid the word “criticism”.

        Ciao e ancora tanti auguri per il 2012.

        Francesco with Thexplorers Toastmasters Club – Milan

  4. I am grateful you shared this speaker and his story. I liked the evaluation and finding pfi would have challenged me. At the recent Vancouver TM convention i heard many good speakers and a good story comes from the heart, the message begs to be heard. I believe many stories are stifled and never shared because the speaker lacks confidence. I like how TM helps with the confidence and sets the story and the speaker free.

    1. Thank you for the comment. Glad you enjoyed the post and analysis. I very much enjoyed Alberto Cairo’s talk. His humility notwithstanding the great work that he is doing is admirable. And yes, a good story comes from the heart. It has to mean something to the speaker in order for it to mean something to the audience.

  5. Reblogged this on Life and Random Thinking and commented:

    I had planned to sit down and write a post today but then I read this post and heard this man’s story.

    I hope that you will take the time to hear the story. It is a meaningful story, told by a humble man and you will understand like I do the power and connection of a story.

    Toastmasters will appreciate that the speech includes an evaluation and that highlights the strong points of the speech as well as providing suggestions on how to improve it. That is what Toastmasters do when we get together in clubs, and evaluations help us improve.

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