“Don’t Look Up”: How to Talk about the End of the World

NOTE: If you plan to see Don’t Look Up on Netflix, but haven’t done it yet…stop reading now, before the spoilers begin, and come back after you’ve watched the final credits!

A Film about How We Communicate

Since you’ve seen the movie, you know that (a) Kate Dibiasky has discovered a new comet that (b) Dr. Randall Mindy realizes is going to hit the Earth in six months, destroying all life on our beautiful, beleaguered planet. They (c) report this to Mindy’s superviser, Dr. Oglethorpe, and the three of them (d) start frantically trying to alert the world.

From there on, the movie—which feels like a re-run of the U.S.’s early response to COVID-19, and is also a parable about climate change—is focused on… communication.

And as such, it’s filled with public speaking lessons for us all, along with harrowing (if hilarious) examples of failures to communicate like this one, which takes place in the White House:

Dr. Mindy: Madam President, approximately 36 hours ago, PhD candidate Kate Dibiasky here discovered a very large comet.

President Orlean: Oh.

Dr. Mindy: Yeah.

President Orlean: Good for you.

Dr. Mindy: A comet between five to 10 kilometers across that we estimate came from the Oort Cloud—

President Orlean: Wow.

Dr. Mindy: … which is the outermost part of the solar system. And using Gauss’s Method of Orbital Determination and the average astrometric uncertainty of 0.04 arc seconds, we then as—

President Orlean: Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa. What the hell is a—

Jason Orlean: I’m so bored. Just tell us what it is.

“Don’t Look Up” Lesson 1: Don’t Bore Your Audience

Now, in fairness to Dr. Mindy, who’s prey to public speaking panic attacks (I had one myself, watching him in this scene), his message probably wouldn’t have landed, even if he’d spoken “perfectly,” because President Orlean (played by Meryl Streep) just didn’t care.

The extinction of all life on earth was of far less interest to her than (a) the midterm elections, and (b) the fascinating mystery of why her poll numbers went up instead of down when she started smoking in public.

So if Mindy hadn’t obscured his point, it might not have made any difference. Sometimes, there’s just nothing you can do to reach an audience.

But even when that’s the case, it’s comforting to know that you tried your best.

So how do you do that?

“Don’t Look Up” Public Speaking Lesson 2: Go Straight to Your Main Point

In Don’t Look Up, the main point is finally reached by Dr. Oglethorpe when—after Mindy’s discussion of Gauss’s Method of Orbital Determination, and Dibiasky’s helpful note that the comet will “hit the Pacific Ocean at 62 miles due west off the coast of Chile—he says,

Madam President, this comet is what we call a Planet Killer.

Now, even that statement is a bit abstract. I would have preferred that Oglethorpe say,

Madam President, every single living thing on earth will DIE unless you take immediate action.

But again, if Oglethorpe had totally nailed the main point, President Orlean still wouldn’t have cared about anything but her poll numbers, so this is nit-picking on my part. 🙂

“Don’t Look Up” Public Speaking Lesson 3: Don’t Let Digressions and Deflections Muddle Your Message

Dibiasky, Mindy, and Oglethorpe next decide to leak their news to the media—specifically, to a TV talk show hosted by Brie Avantee (Cate Blanchett) and Jack Bremmer (Tyler Perry).

Bremmer begins their interview by asking Mindy,

“Is there life out there? Yes or no, final answer!”

This is a digression, as Bremmer knows full well.

And while it may seem like a harmless warm-up question, Mindy’s answer takes his focus off his own agenda, and lets Bremmer set the wrong tone for what follows.

It’s generally a bad idea to answer off-topic questions, but what could Mindy have done differently?

Pivot back to what really matters

Mindy might, for example, have said,

We don’t know if there’s life ‘out there,’ but we’re really worried about whether there’s still gonna be life right here on earth!!

Yes, coming up with a pivot like that, in real time on national television when the fate of all life on earth rests on your communication skills, is no small task.

But if you ever get a chance to try this technique, take it; because, like everything else in public speaking, pivoting gets easier with practice.

Bremmer then moves on to quizzing Dibiasky—who starts with a tepid description of what she was looking for when she discovered the comet. (Who cares? Certainly not Bremmer and Cate Blanchett’s character Brie).

When Dibiasky finally says that the comet is heading toward earth and is going to destroy everything, Bremer deflects the impact (pun intended) of her point by asking whether the comet could destroy his ex-wife’s house…

…and it’s all downhill from there until Dibiasky runs off the set.

Yelling, crying, and running away never really help your case; but what could she have done differently?

Pivot back to what really matters

Dibiasky could, for example, have said,

Sure, the comet can destroy your ex-wife’s house—along with your kid’s house, your grandparent’s house, your house, and everybody in them.

Yes, this type of clapback + pivot is easier to think of the next day.

But again, if you ever get a chance to practice the technique, try it, because you never know when it’ll come in handy.

Pivoting to Your Communications Challenges

It’s really hard to keep your cool when the stakes are high and your opponents hold the good cards.

But that’s all the more reason to explore and experiment with techniques and ideas that might someday be useful.

Writing this post has been a good exercise of that sort for me.

I hope that it helps you with your communications challenges…

…and I hope that your challenges will always be small ones!

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