I Had a Chat with Alberto Cairo before Giving a Talk, Here’s What He Told Me

5 tips from an experienced speaker

A couple of weeks ago, I had the pleasure to have a friendly, little call with Alberto Cairo as part of a “mentorship” program to prepare my talk for Outlier, 2021. As a good tip is not a real one if not shared, here are 5 simple tips this frequent keynoter shared with me:

Collage of an actor reading a book with a mic behind him and several text bubles saying “blah blah blah”

1. You’re a natural, girl

It’s called a “talk”, not a “reading,” so do not read. Make your notes in bullet point-style.

Don’t try to sound too polished. Hesitation is not a bad thing. Imperfection infuses a sense of reality to your talk and makes it more engaging (unless you’re going for the TED Talk-style, in which case perfection is NOT ENOUGH).

Collage of several recording windows of an actor talking

2. Practice makes perfect (but, not too perfect, remember?)

Practice a lot in advance. You’ll be able to notice if there are parts you’re struggling with or words you’re often missing. Highlight those on your notes, this will help. It’s even more precious if you have to deliver your talk in a foreign language!

While practicing, it’s best to record yourself (sound+video). This way, your ticks and flaws will become obvious to you so you can work on them. Plus, your grandchildren will be thrilled to watch those on Saturday evenings.

Collage of an actor in front of a mic with a big “euuuh” buble text and a loading bar

3. Enjoy the silence

Try to avoid noises (Ummm, uh, heuuuu) when hesitating. It’s better to allow one of two seconds of silence. The same thing applies to filler words (right ?).

Try to align your speech rhythm and structure with the tone of your voice, from lower for more serious matters to higher when talking about lighter and more fun things. If you’re a fast speaker, force yourself to well ar-ti-cu-la-te words in order to slow down your speech speed.

Collage of an actor talking in front of a mic, doing a weird posture with his arms and hands

4. Handy work

Keep your hands under control. Try to find the right balance, avoiding rigidity (your robot needs some oiling) as well as distracting gesticulations (where’s the fly you’re trying to kill?), and over-dramatic choreography of gestures (Ô fury of the age…). The goal here is to naturally follow and punctuate your speech with your hands.

Collage of a distressed actor in front of a mic, surround by other actors with huge eye instead of head

5. Keep coolly cool

Giving a talk in front of peers is not the same thing as delivering a paper in front of academics. Try to see yourself not as much giving a lecture as delivering a long speech during a conversation with friends (eventually naked, if the old trick of “imagine them in underwear” helps). As the worst part is usually the beginning, start your talk with a part about which you feel especially confident. It’ll help you manage your stress and ignite energy you’ll keep throughout the entire talk.

And if you still screw up your talk after all these tips, remember number one, imperfection is good!

Datacitron (aka Julie Brunet) is an independent data & information designer as well as the Creative Director of Nightingale, the journal of Datavisualization Society. She believes in the accessibility of information through design and storytelling, and the virtuous role data designers can play in our society