Max Foster meets an unlikely viral star, in an even less likely location...
Underground, in a leafy suburb south-west of London lies a futuristic world that's straight out of a sci-fi movie. You arrive along a tree-lined footpath leading to a small, anonymous glass building. You swipe your pass, the doors slide open and you're presented with a spiral staircase that takes you deep down into a disorientating warren of white-washed corridors that undulate up, down, round and round without a corner in sight or door handle or even a window. Shafts of light beam down from somewhere high above. Occasionally a friendly, uniformed worker passes by and disappears into a hidden doorway - if you follow them, you might end up in a warehouse lined with vintage supercars or a space-aged amphitheatre with rows of executive seating rippling out from a central stage, each with its own bank of touchscreens. Wrapped around the top of the room is a vast circular monitor that can respond to what the audience is tapping in to the screens in front of them.
This is the McLaren Thought Leadership Centre, nestled next to the legendary car factory in Woking, Surrey. It was the location for a series of shows I was hosting, one of which was called 'CNN Inspirations: New Frontiers.' In it, I interviewed three explorers: Sarah Parcak who's an archaeologist using infrared satellite images to discover lost wonders; Christopher Horsley, who literally climbs in to volcanoes to see what's inside; and oceanographer David Gallo who delivered one of the most watched TED talks of all time.
In 'Underwater Astonishments' (2007), Gallo takes the audience through a remarkable series of videos from the bottom of the sea. The final clip shows a lump of algae. He keeps people watching until they see an octopus suddenly emerge from and dart away, leaving a trail of black ink in it's wake. Gallo then reverses the video to show the octopus vanishing back in to the algae, matching its colour and texture seamlessly. The audience is blown away and they start clapping and as they do so, he slips off stage with the inimitable line, 'now he's gone and so am I.' People leap to their feet. You can feel their excitement and their yearning to hear and see more.
Before I interviewed Gallo for my show, we spoke about his TED talk and he explained that he'd never intended to deliver it, let alone make it go viral. He’d gone along to the event to watch the other speakers but one failed to show up and the organisers asked Gallo to step in. He went up to his hotel room, checked what he had on his laptop and came back down with a series of videos that he talked through on stage. He didn't need a script because he had studied them so closely as part of his work. He didn't hear much after he delivered it either until the video was posted online. When I asked him why he thought so many people picked up on it there, he told me, ‘it’s not me, it’s the octopus.’
But Gallo is playing down his role in the video's success. The presentation wouldn't have come alive in the way that it did without his clout. He had credibility as an explorer, character as a speaker and he was able to connect with his audience and engage them in fascinating conversation. His energy and passion for the subject are palpable and contagious and that's because he was on a mission to bring the world's attention to the delicacy of life at the bottom of the sea.
But that still doesn't fully explain why the video was shared so many times and Gallo pointed me towards the comments attached to the video to show how he had inadvertently walked in to an existential debate between creationists and evolutionists...
'If God exists, I don't think he's going to punish anybody just for accepting evolution, since evolution science does not in any way claim that there isn't a god. Darwin himself believed in a creator for decades after publishing his findings, and never intended his writing to be atheistic.' (Jonathan Wojcik)
'Oh and hey. The big bang has NEVER been proven. Is a false idea.' (Stephen Inness)
'Also, a divine creator has NEVER been proven either.(Jake Frasier)'
'If there is design, there must be a designer, no? Is it reasonable to believe that all these creatures somehow developed, on their own, the ability to blend into their environment, without the blessing of conscious thought?' (George Makris)
I don't understand why evolutionists care what "design" advocates believe or say. Does it really matter? Or is it the attempt to deny any responsibility to a higher being? (Gale Hickok)
It was an epic argument that is still no closer to resolution all these years after Gallo presented his talk. He and the octopus became central to the conversation for a while and though he didn't resolve it, he did manage to steer it towards his cause and raised awareness of sealife.
The bigger the conversation you are part of, the larger your audience and the further your content can potentially go, but your it needs to trigger an emotional response and you need the credibility to make people want to endorse you by sharing it. Gallo's TED talk had it all and he re-purposed it for the interview he did with me on CNN which widened his audience even further and gave him even more clout.
It's a masterclass in developing your clout with a speech