When two astronomers bump into each other in the hallway, one doesn’t say to the other: “We’ve discovered seven Earth-sized planets in the Goldilocks Zone just 40 light years away.”
The astronomers might say: “The transiting configuration of seven temperate exo-planets around the ultracool dwarf star TRAPPIST-1, located 12 parsecs away, are well-suited for atmospheric configuration.”
Both explanations are accurate and both were used to announce the exciting discovery of seven Earth-sized planets near the star, TRAPPIST-1. But they were used for different audiences. The second paragraph appeared in the actual scientific paper explaining the discovery for the academic community. The first explanation was delivered by some of the very same scientists—for the rest of us.
Those scientists were coached by one of the most brilliant communication organizations in the world: NASA.
NASA cannot advertise, which has forced the space agency to create innovative methods to sell its story . Its tools include marketing and social media, public-relations, video and graphic design, storytelling, and public-speaking. NASA’s live-streamed TRAPPIST-1 press conference offers a master class in communicating scientific information (or any complex idea) to a broad audience.
Stick to the 18-minute rule.
NASA’s press conference was short, but filled with content. The presentation itself ran for exactly 18 minutes, the same length of a TED Talk (Q&A stretched it to 38 minutes). Readers who have followed my column know I’m a strong proponent of limiting presentations to no more than 18 to 20 minutes. In this article I argue that a 20-minute presentation will nearly always beat a 60-minute one. Research has shown that delivering too much information at once results in ‘cognitive backlog,’ which simply means our short-term memory bank gets full, fast. The TED conference has found that 18-minutes is just the right amount of time to have a substantive discussion without putting your listeners to sleep.
NASA knows the 18-minute principle and sticks to it.
Replace jargon with everyday words.
Jargon has no place in a NASA press conference intended to convey information to the world.
Each of the five speakers at the TRAPPIST-1 press conference had notes in front of them, and each were prepared with quotes, insights and remarks. Most of these words do not appear anywhere in the scientific paper of the discovery—but they played a prominent role in the press conference. Scientists don’t speak this way to their peers, but they do when they need to inspire the masses. For example:
“The discovery gives us a hint that finding a second Earth is not just a matter of if…but when.” — Thomas Zurbuchen, Associate Administrator, Science Mission Directorate, NASA
“We’ve discovered not one, not two, but seven Earth-sized planets around the same star. This is the first time that so many Earth-sized planets have been found around the same star, three of them in the habitable zone. Habitable zones are also called ‘Goldilocks Zones’ where liquid water could exist.” — Michael Gillon Astronomer, University of Liege, Belgium
“At light speed we’d arrive [at Trappist-1] in 39 years. A jet plane would take 44 million years.” — Nikole Lewis, Astronomer, Space Telescope Science Institute, Baltimore
“We’ve made a giant accelerated leap forward in search for life on other worlds…In this planetary system, Goldilocks has many sisters.” — Sara Seager Professor, Planetary Science and Physics, MIT, Cambridge
Goldilocks has many sisters? These aren’t the words of a scientist; they are the words of a leader who wants to ignite our imagination. And it works.
Rely on the power of pictures.
Take a look at the photograph that accompanies this article (NASA provides high quality videos and photos for free to spread its message far and wide. You can find them here). The image does not appear in the scientific paper and most certainly was not seen through the telescope when scientists first spotted the planets (the information is delivered as data, and not colorful pictures).
The image is an artistic rendering of a basketball and a golf ball floating in space. It compares the size of our sun to TRAPPIST-1, an ‘ultracool’ dwarf star. You won’t see a PowerPoint slide like this in a scientific paper, but you will it in a NASA announcement. In fact, the 18 minute NASA presentation contained several colorful photos, beautiful animations, and gorgeous artistic renderings of what the sky would look like from the surface of these newly discovered planets. NASA even offers a free app that allows anyone to ‘see’ these exoplanets with their own eyes.
NASA wants to stay in business and remain relevant to our lives. They want to answer the question, “Are we alone?” To do so they realize the critical role communication plays to stir excitement, stretch our imaginations, and to inspire us to explore worlds beyond our own.
photo: courtesy NASA