Be like Carl Sagan

In my series entitled “Making it Stick”, one of the posts discusses how to be credible as a speaker. One of the pieces of advice is to put things, especially statistics, into context for our audiences. Failing to do so can result in a presentation that is overwhelming or mind-numbing or both. As Chip and Dan Heath caution in their book Made to Stick:

Statistics are rarely meaningful in and of themselves. Statistics will, and should, almost always be used to illustrate a relationship.  It’s more important for people to remember the relationship than the number.

I recently came across a great example of how to put statistics into context: The Cosmic Calendar by the great Carl Sagan. Sagan, who was passionate about the universe and its creation, wanted to convey the history of the cosmos in a way that could be grasped by the average person. No mean feat when you consider that we are talking about a mind-boggling 15 billion years. I have trouble keeping track of time in a single week.

Carl Sagan
Carl Sagan

To put things into context, Sagan developed the Cosmic Calendar, which compresses the entirety of eternity into a single calendar year on Earth.  The result is fascinating and makes us realize just how late we are to the party, for according to the Cosmic Calendar:

  • Things began with the Big Bang on the very first second of January 1st.
  • Right now is the last second of the last minute of December 31st.
  • Each month represents a little over 1.25 billion years.
  • Each day represents 40 million years.
  • Each second represents 500 years.
  • The Milky Way was formed in May.
  • The sun and the planets were formed in mid-September. Life arose soon after.
  • The first multi-cellular organisms didn’t show up until in November.
  • The first vertebrates appeared on December 17th.
  • On Christmas Eve, the dinosaurs arrived. By December 29th, they were extinct.
  • Our human ancestors made their appearance around 10:30 p.m. on December 31st.
  • At 11:46 on December 31st, humans made fire.
  • We only began to domesticate plants and animals at 11:59:20 on December 31st.
  • All of recorded history happened in the last ten seconds of the last minute of December 31st.
  • The pyramids were built nine seconds ago.
  • The Roman Empire fell three seconds ago.
  • Columbus discovered America one second ago.
  • If the average human lifespan is condered to be 75 years, the average person will live 0.15 seconds.

I don’t know about you, but I find all of this incredibly humbling. I also find that it puts the history of the universe into a context that makes it more accessible.

As speakers, we might not have to explain the vastness of the universe; however, we often have to explain other complex matters. Be like Carl Sagan. Look for ways to put complex information into context so that your audience will understand and remember what you said.

For those of you interested in learning more about the Cosmic Calendar from Carl Sagan himself, you might enjoy the video below.

Photo courtesy of Michael Okoniewski

Like the article? Help and spread the word!

Share on facebook
Facebook
Share on twitter
Twitter
Share on linkedin
LinkedIn
Share on reddit
Reddit
Share on email
Email

9 Replies to “Be like Carl Sagan”

  1. Great posting John- many thanks for drawing our attention to it. It certainly puts things into perspective doesn’t it? We have such an overblown sense of our own importance- this firmly puts us in our place.
    Regards
    Brian

    1. Alistair, thanks very much for sharing that video. It does indeed give goose bumps. It is a shame that Sagan had to leave us so soon. Let’s hope that we are smart enough to heed his wisdom. Cheers!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Testimonials

John delivered a keynote address about the importance of public speaking to 80 senior members of Gore’s Medical Device Europe team at an important sales event. He was informative, engaging and inspirational. Everyone was motivated to improve their public speaking skills. Following his keynote, John has led public speaking workshops for Gore in Barcelona and Munich. He is an outstanding speaker who thinks carefully about the needs of his audience well before he steps on stage.

Karsta Goetze

TA Leader, Gore and Associates

I first got in touch with John while preparing to speak at TED Global about my work on ProtonMail. John helped me to sharpen the presentation and get on point faster, making the talk more focused and impactful. My speech was very well received, has since reached almost 1.8 million people and was successful in explaining a complex subject (email encryption) to a general audience.

Andy Yen

CEO, Proton Technologies

John gave the opening keynote on the second day of our unit’s recent offsite in Geneva, addressing an audience of 100+ attendees with a wealth of tips and techniques to deliver powerful, memorable presentations. I applied some of these techniques the very next week in an internal presentation, and I’ve been asked to give that presentation again to senior management, which has NEVER happened before. John is one of the greatest speakers I know and I can recommend his services without reservation.

David Lindelöf

Senior Data Scientist, Expedia Group

After a morning of team building activities using improvisation as the conduit, John came on stage to close the staff event which was organised in Chamonix, France. His energy and presence were immediately felt by all the members of staff. The work put into the preparation of his speech was evident and by sharing some his own stories, he was able to conduct a closing inspirational speech which was relevant, powerful and impactful for all at IRU. The whole team left feeling engaged and motivated to tackle the 2019 objectives ahead. Thank you, John.

Umberto de Pretto

Secretary General, World Road Transport Organization

I was expecting a few speaking tips and tricks and a few fun exercises, but you went above and beyond – and sideways. You taught me to stand tall. You taught me to anchor myself. You taught me to breathe. You taught me to open up. You taught me to look people in the eye. You taught me to tell the truth. You taught me to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. I got more than I bargained for in the best possible way.

Thuy Khoc-Bilon

World Cancer Day Campaign Manager, Union for International Cancer Control

John gave a brilliant presentation on public speaking during the UN EMERGE programme in Geneva (a two days workshop on leadership development for a group of female staff members working in the UN organizations in Geneva). His talk was inspirational and practical, thanks to the many techniques and tips he shared with the audience. His teaching can dramatically change our public speaking performance and enable us as presenters to have a real and powerful impact. Thank you, John, for your great contribution!

Sara Canna

HR Specialist, World Health Organization

John is a genuine communication innovator. His seminars on gamification of public speaking learning and his interactive Rhetoric game at our conference set the tone for change and improvement in our organisation. The quality of his input, the impact he made with his audience and his effortlessly engaging style made it easy to get on board with his core messages and won over some delegates who were extremely skeptical as to the efficacy of games for learning. I simply cannot recommend him highly enough.

Thomas Scott

National Education Director, Association of Speakers Clubs UK

John joined our Global Sales Meeting in Segovia, Spain and we all participated in his "Improv(e) your Work!" session. I say “all” because it really was all interactive, participatory, learning and enjoyable. The session surprised everybody and was a fresh-air activity that brought a lot of self-reflection and insights to improve trust and confidence in each other inside our team. It´s all about communication and a good manner of speaking!"

Jon Lopez

General Manager Europe, Hayward Industries

Thank you very much for the excellent presentation skills session. The feedback I received was very positive. Everyone enjoyed the good mix of listening to your speech, co-developing a concrete take-away and the personal learning experience. We all feel more devoted to the task ahead, more able to succeed and an elevated team spirit. Delivering this in a short time, both in session and in preparation, is outstanding!

Henning Dehler

CFO European Dairy Supply Chain & Operations, Danone

Thanks to John’s excellent workshop, I have learned many important tips and techniques to become an effective public speaker. John is a fantastic speaker and teacher, with extensive knowledge of the field. His workshop was a great experience and has proven extremely useful for me in my professional and personal life.

Eric Thuillard

Senior Sales Manager, Sunrise Communications

John’s presentation skills training was a terrific investment of my time. I increased my skills in this important area and feel more comfortable when speaking to an audience. John provided the right mix between theory and practice.

Diego Brait

Director of the Jura Region, BKW Energie AG

Be BOLD. Those two words got stuck in my head and in the heads of all those ADP leaders and associates that had the privilege to see John on stage. He was our keynote speaker at our annual convention in Barcelona, and his message still remains! John puts his heart in every word. Few speakers are so credible, humble and yet super strong with large audiences!

Guadalupe Garcia

Senior Director and Talent Partner, ADP International