Article Category: Speech Critiques

5 Presentation Lessons from
Randy Pausch in The Last Lecture

Randy Pausch: Last LectureRandy Pausch delivers a lesson laden lecture — Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams — which will have you laughing, crying, and cherishing life.

The “elephant in the room” — Pausch’s diagnosis of terminal pancreatic cancer — serves as an emotional backdrop for this memorable lecture.

In addition to illuminating many of life’s important lessons, Randy Pausch’s last lecture also provides five lessons which can help you connect with your audience.

Last Lecture Book Randy Pausch

Randy Pausch and the Famous Last Lecture

Randy Pausch was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in September 2006. Pausch delivered his last lecture at Carnegie Mellon University (where he is a Professor) on September 18, 2007. In the seminar series (aptly titled “The Last Lecture”), professors were challenged to deliver the message of a lifetime as if it was their last lecture. The irony makes his words that much more poignant.

The Last Lecture has become one of the most viewed lectures on the Internet. Its popularity is increased by appearances on the Oprah Winfrey show and an appearance on ABC with Diane Sawyer titled The Last Lecture – A Love Story For Your Life.

Watch it now…

Five Presentation Techniques Taught by Randy Pausch

When I first viewed the Last Lecture months ago, I hesitated to review it because of the emotional impact. However, on the encouragement of several friends and Six Minutes readers, I asked myself: “Is the speech memorable because of the context, his delivery, or both?”

There is no denying that the context makes the speech memorable, but that quality is enhanced by five timeless presentation techniques exhibited by Randy Pausch. Each of these helps you connect with your audience and helps them remember your words into the future:

  1. Introduce the elephant in the room.
  2. Define the scope.
  3. Conclude strong.
  4. Show enthusiasm. Immerse yourself.
  5. Get personal.

1. Introduce the Elephant in the Room

Randy Pausch: Last Lecture Elephant

Randy Pausch opens his lecture in the best way possible for this lecture, this audience, and this venue — by relieving stress.

Following an easy joke about the title of the lecture series, he introduces the elephant in the room; that is, he spends a minute discussing his pancreatic cancer. Then, he raises the emotion in the room by doing a series of pushups. If he had not opened this way, the audience would have been distracted for the entire lecture, and unable to fully immerse themselves in the powerful lessons to come.

Key Lesson: If there are issues distracting your audience, address them sooner rather than later.

2. Define the Scope

Pausch then proceeds to define the scope of his lecture. He outlines what he will talk about and, more importantly, what he will not talk about. This is a classic speech outline technique.

Declaring the scope is important because it establishes the starting point and the boundaries for your presentation. It brings your audience to the starting point with you, and ensures they are in the right frame of mind to receive the message you are about to deliver.

Ideally, the scope for your presentation will be conveyed to the audience via pre-talk advertising or by your introduction. If this isn’t the case, however, it is worth addressing early in your presentation.

Key Lesson: Before you get into the heart of your talk, frame your speech for the audience.

Randy Pausch: Last Lecture Scope Not Randy Pausch: Last Lecture Scope

3. Conclude Strong

As strong as the opening was, I suspect that the conclusion is far more memorable for most people who view this lecture.

Pausch follows conventional advice for a conclusion by summarizing his key points. It is a good practice for any length of speech, but especially so for longer speeches like this one (~75 minutes). He actually provides several “recaps” throughout the speech.

In addition, he reaches back to one of the concepts introduced earlier — the head fake — and reveals that his entire speech has been a pair of head fakes. It makes the audience replay the entire lecture in their heads in the context of this new revelation.

Key Lesson: Finish strong. Leave your audience thinking.

4. Show Enthusiasm. Immerse Yourself.

Randy Pausch: Last Lecture Enthusiasm

Randy Pausch smiles and laughs many times in this lecture. Okay, fair enough. That’s not too unusual. However, he also:

  • Wears an Alice in Wonderland hat.
  • Dons a football jacket.
  • Does pushups.
  • Gives away stuffed animals.

He could have assumed a very reserved, somber tone for this speech. He could have treated every word as if it were a matter of life or death. But that would have drawn more attention to his condition instead of his core message.

Key Lesson: The audience is more apt to have fun and cherish life if they see you doing so in your speeches.

5. Get Personal

Randy Pausch: Last Lecture Personal

This may seem obvious, but the last lesson I’d like to highlight is to get personal with your audience. Or, phrased in the opposite way, don’t hide your personal side from the audience.

To some extent, this entire speech is personal. Fair enough. The content of the speech are the personal lessons Randy Pausch has learned through life, and he illuminates these through personal stories.

Still, there is a way to tell personal stories while still remaining distant and somewhat clinical. You can tell a story about visiting Disneyland, but if you don’t show a glint in your eye, you’re holding something back.

Randy Pausch holds nothing back. He conveys the personal emotions in his stories. One of the most memorable moments in the lecture is when he has the audience sing Happy Birthday to his wife.

Key Lesson: Let your guard down. Showing emotion is one of the best ways to connect with an audience.

Last Lecture Book Randy PauschThe Last Lecture: Video, Transcript, and Book

A book allows me to cover many, many more stories from my life and the attendant lessons I hope my kids can take from them. … The book is a far more personal look at my childhood dreams and all the lessons I’ve learned. Putting words on paper, I’ve found, was a better way for me to share all the yearnings I have regarding my wife, children and other loved ones.

Thank you, Randy, for sharing these lessons with us.

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This article is one of a series of speech critiques of inspiring speakers featured on Six Minutes.
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Comments icon8 Comments

  1. Mark says:

    How inspiring Randy Pausch is! If you liked “The Last Lecture”, another fantastic memoir I just read and highly recommend is “My Stroke of Insight” by Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor. Her TEDTalk video ( has been seen as many times as The Last Lecture I think, and Oprah did 4 shows on her book, so there are a lot of similarities. In My Stroke of Insight, there’s a happy ending though. It’s an incredible story! I hear they’re making it into a movie.

  2. Aileen says:

    Thks Andrew for leaving a post in my blog. You have just shown me the path to a great resource site for my toastmaster journey. This blog is so awesomely maintained, with many, many fabulous articles and tips for amateurs like me. Good job!

  3. Keith Davis says:

    I thought that this was a spoof “last lecture”… as soon as I realised that it wasn’t a spoof, I couldn’t watch. Too sad.
    Shows how powerful emotions are when giving a speech.
    Perhaps I’ll watch the video some other time.

  4. Andrew,

    Great analysis of Randy’s Last Lecture–particularly, his use of props to keep the tone lightedhearted and let the audience relieve tension.

  5. lily says:

    randy was a great man!his theories were well thought.i adore him . he was a true pptimist.he even thought that being a cancer patient gave him an opportunity to thank people he was grateful for with an added goodbye.a thoughtful man

  6. dawn j says:

    This was well thought out. I love the Pausch speech and have allowed my students to critique it as a make-up assignment in my public speaking course. It may inspire them to stop making excuses and to keep going on the course to your dreams even when you need to make a detour or two. 🙂 Thank you Mr. Dlugan

  7. Heather G. says:

    This is a particularly powerful speech, not just because of the subject matter, but also because of how the topic is broached. Most individuals would hesitate at presenting something so “lighthearted” at times, considering the gravity of the situation. However, I think that’s what makes it stand out all the more. If you’re going to to go out, go out in style I say – and Mr. Pausch did this admirably.

  8. I was somewhat confused at first by “the elephant in the room”.

    I thought that meant the most important person. Well, it turn out that its only a figurative term used to say we should grab the attention of our audience.

    Thank you for these insights.

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