by Steve Adubato, PhD
A friend recently sent me a video that demonstrated in a powerful and dramatic fashion how one person can connect with millions in the way he communicates. The video was from a recent episode of Oprah featuring Randy Pausch, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University and who was recently diagnosed with incurable pancreatic cancer. Randy, who is only 47 years old, was told he had only a few months to live and decided that he would deliver what would come to be called “The Last Lecture.” The father of three small children ages 5, 2 and 1, Randy appeared to be the picture of good health, yet the multiple tumors he had made his prognosis painfully clear.
Professor Pausch had delivered this memorable lecture in September of 2007 and word had gotten to Oprah that his message was inspirational, and she decided to have him on the show. The presentation was entitled “Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams.” Randy decided that he would not make his “last lecture” about dying, but rather about the “importance of overcoming obstacles” and “…seizing every moment because time is all you have and you may find one day that you have less time than you think.”
In short, Randy’s speech, which was being videotaped was about celebrating life. Yet, while mostly intended for his students and colleagues at Carnegie Mellon, it was largely so that his children would be left with powerful messages from their loving father.
What’s fascinating from a communications perspective is how Randy Pausch went about preparing this last lecture. He asked himself; “What do I, alone, truly have to offer?” and amassed hundreds of photos from his life as part of a PowerPoint presentation. He ultimately realized that only a few slides could be included, so he edited those photos and tied them to powerful messages.
He showed a giant slide of his CT scans, which had red arrows pointing to the many cancerous tumors that will ultimately take his life. Underneath it was the quote “The Elephant in the Room.” His presentation dealt with what he knew many in his audience were thinking about—His cancer and prognosis. But he quickly turned it around from a message about death to one about attitude and dealing with difficult circumstances. He said, “Alright. That is what it is. We can’t change it. We just have to decide how we’ll respond.” And then this PowerPoint slide: “We cannot change the cards we are dealt, just how we play the hand.”
He then put up a photo of his wife and his children in front of their Virginia home with the heading “I Am Not in Denial.” His message to his riveted audience was that he clearly understood his dire circumstance and that it was impossible to be in denial with three small children who would soon be fatherless. He then put up a slide that said, “My Childhood Dreams” which included photos that matched some of those dreams including “Playing in the NFL” or “Being Captain Kirk” or “Being a Disney Imagineer,” which he ultimately became.
His presentation on Oprah lasted only 10 minutes but had a lasting impact. Numerous audience members were moved to tears and clearly had experienced something they didn’t anticipate. In Randy Pausch’s “last lecture” he used extraordinary communication skills to move, motivate and inspire his audience. He also gave hope and a new meaning on life to those who have cancer, including terminal patients who may wonder what if anything they have to offer.
Randy is still alive, yet, once he does inevitably pass on, it is clear that his “last lecture” will live on for years and demonstrate that one person through his words, passion and message can change the world.
P.S.—This column doesn’t do justice to Randy Pausch. For more information, log on to www.thelastlecture.com and write to me with your thoughts.