With 20 years of experience in corporate affairs with the aerospace and defense industry, David Schild understands the importance of pairing brilliant engineers with talented storytellers. Here, as an accompaniment to his article on building a story, Schild shares a real-life example of how he and his team crafted an out-of-this-world narrative to gain congressional support for funding the space program.
“Do you boys know what makes this bird go up? Funding makes this bird go up! No bucks, no Buck Rogers.” —Astronauts Gordo Cooper and Gus Grissom (The Right Stuff, 1983)
Mostly I remember how nervous the whole thing made me feel. To start, I was out of my element — a new team member at a global aerospace conglomerate, touring a manufacturing facility alongside executives and actual rocket scientists. Also, we had important work to do — persuading members of the United States Congress to keep funding the space program. But what really kicked my anxiety into overdrive that day at the space factory was the thought that I was going to break something.
Practically everything I saw that day was an exquisite piece of technology bound for either the space shuttle or the International Space Station. Each was the result of thousands of hours of work and decades of research and development. When you see these marvels of innovation in person, you can’t help but think about the ingenuity that produced them and the possibilities of what they can do. You think to yourself, “Who wouldn’t want to fund this?”
Indeed, that was the default mindset of many of our brilliant engineers. Unfortunately, the answer is, “People who don’t understand the value.”
The trouble with the “who wouldn’t want to fund this” school of thought is that engineers know too much. They know, for example, the importance of having the first reusable space vehicle. They know what happens at the space station, where an international coalition works in a laboratory performing experiments that would never be possible on Earth.
That resonates with them. But does it resonate with the only audience that really matters — the elected officials who write the checks?
Congress has shown repeatedly that it does not. Just a few years after the space program landed two astronauts on the moon and brought them safely back to Earth (total cost: $28 billion), NASA was forced to cancel the final Apollo missions because of budget pressures and a lack of congressional support.
So how did it come to be that three decades later, I found myself face-to-face with the next generation of awe-inspiring space technology, tasked with crafting a compelling story to help ensure continued funding?
In a previous Catalyst piece, I discussed the importance of pairing brilliant engineers with great storytellers, highlighting how some of history’s most famous technical achievements became widely known and admired only after someone had built a compelling narrative. Business communicators and public affairs professionals often face this challenge: how to translate the technical prowess and personal passion of engineers into a story that will make sense to everyone else.
Good storytellers must understand their audience and craft their messages accordingly. In some cases, that might mean making complex concepts easily understood. For others, it might mean shifting the focus of a technology’s impact.
In the case of promoting space tech, that’s exactly what we did.
Rather than making the story about how our technology enabled the success of the mission, we emphasized what the mission meant to our most important audience: the members of Congress who sat on the influential House Committee on Science, Space and Technology.
Our narrative explained how high-tech manufacturing boosted their local economies. It told the stories of the highly skilled, well-paid workers who made it possible. Space factories do more than make marvels — they employ thousands of people, and they drive ongoing cycles of innovation, investment and growth.
In the end, our story found a receptive audience. The space shuttle flew for another decade, finally retiring in 2011, and the International Space Station still orbits above at nearly 17,000 miles per hour.
If you’re a communicator assigned to support an engineer, you might face this challenge sooner than you think. Even as you read this, a gifted colleague may be pioneering a technology with enormous potential for scientific achievement — and for your business’s bottom line. Here are some things you can do to get ready:
- Learn as much as you can about the technology you’re being asked to represent.
- Think about its secondary impacts.
- Study your history.
- Consider your audience’s motivations and priorities.
Wherever that last one overlaps with the first three, that’s where your story lives.
David Schild is the founder and managing partner of Three Rivers Strategies, a strategic public affairs firm headquartered in Pittsburgh.