Engaging Audiences with Storytelling

Running rings around Saturn. The Cassini mission explored the rings and moons of the gas giant.

Last week, I had the extraordinary opportunity to get a behind-the-scenes tour of the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif., and hear from two of JPL’s master storytellers about engaging audiences’ imagination through the wondrous possibilities of space exploration.

My inner science nerd spent the whole time doing cartwheels while the professional me took lots of photos and some notes to share with you.

The organizers – the Los Angeles chapter of IABC – made the excellent choice to include both external and internal storytelling on the agenda, which opened up the topic and the perspectives in a big way.

Our speakers were Stephen Kulczycki, deputy director of communications and education at JPL, and Teresa Bailey, information science specialist and the JPL FIOA liaison in the Library, Archives and Records section.

Connecting with Hearts, Not Just Minds – Storytelling to External Audiences

Just as you’d imagine, we needed to submit our names to JPL several days prior to the event and there were security checkpoints throughout the Pasadena campus, which has more acreage than Disneyland.

The next Mars rover (which successfully landed Aug. 6, 2012) is Curiosity, and it’s the biggest machine in space. Curiosity reminds me a bit of WALL-E!

Still, there’s a large public-facing component to this organization, including a visitor’s center housing a museum on the history of space exploration. Thousands of students come through each year, learn and discover, and are treated to a number of communications designed specifically to encourage their sense of wonder about “amazing places,” as Stephen Kulczycki says.

His office produces short films about JPL’s work that have the quality of Hollywood trailers with quick cuts, dramatic orchestral music, and lively graphics. The scientific language is pitched to “smart 8-year-olds,” which makes these mini-movies perfect as press releases, for the general public, for online platforms, and as footage in science programs, such as PBS’s “Nova.”

“Every good story takes a protagonist with a dream and a set of obstacles they need to overcome,” Kulczycki says. “We get the mechanics and explanations out of the way and get to the heart of what people feel.”

“We’re creating relationships here, person to person, house to house,” he adds.

JPL has one of the Apollo mission moon rocks. Note the giant padlock (back, left) securing this sample!

If you work in an organization with plenty of proprietary information to protect, it’s possible to give in to the restrictions on information-sharing and lose sight of how you can use communications to create those relationships. The JPL storytelling event demonstrated that even in a restricted environment, you can find innovative ways to engage, educate and enthrall your audiences.

One of the coolest ways JPL involves children is in the naming of spacecraft. Schools across the country are invited to submit names and, in the case of the latest moon orbiters (now christened “Ebb” and “Flow”), the winning school gets to take the first pictures of the moon. Brilliant!

We saw a video of the Skype transmission from the winning science classroom in Montana. All the kids were cheering while the teacher beamed and jumped up and down. The 8-year-old in me, who spent most of her Saturdays at the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum, knew exactly how they felt. The communications professional recognized that one day, one of those students may grow up to become an astronaut, a spacecraft designer, an astrophysicist, or a politician who makes decisions about funding space exploration.

JPL uses communications and involvement to invest its audience. “The value we put on communication is the way it enables us to connect with the human soul and heart,” Kulczycki says. “We represent hope, otherwise we’d be machine-makers instead of dream-makers.”

Storytelling that Builds Community

Meanwhile, inside JPL, there’s been another kind of storytelling, and it’s been happening at the library for the last dozen years.

“Community-building is a common thing for libraries to be involved in,” notes Teresa Bailey, who developed monthly (now every other month) hour-long speaker programs after “puzzling over how to incorporate storytelling without making it sound like something happening at a children’s library.”

“Ground Control to Major Tom.” This is mission control at JPL, where they monitor all the data sent back from spacecraft studying the moon, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, and beyond.

But, she had a strong belief that the best way to transfer knowledge is face-to-face and launched the storyteller program in 2000. Bailey helped connect and engage her internal audience by encouraging speakers to share personal stories with insider details – “what makes your work meaningful to you? Only you have walked in your shoes.”

Scientists can discuss research from the past, current projects, even their dreams for the future.

Bailey preps the storytellers in advance, allows more than one scientist to share the stage (because research generally involves large groups of scientists and engineers), encourages the use of visuals, and handles internal publicity. The stories are filmed and made available on the intranet, as well as through the library’s archives site.

Bailey sees storytelling contributing to a knowledge-sharing culture. Storytelling, she says, supports:

  • mentoring
  • socialization of new employees
  • building relationships and bonding
  • learning lessons from past or present projects
  • organizational identity
  • community

“It’s very contagious being here because there’s always something new,” she adds. Storytelling spreads that “contagion,” enabling employees to learn, ask questions, get involved, be inspired, and reach for the stars.

Many thanks to our gracious hosts, speakers and tour guides at NASA JPL. You can check out the stunning videos and learn more on the JPL website.

Writing that inspired me this week:

“Space. The final frontier.”
~ Gene Roddenberry, “Star Trek”

4 thoughts on “Engaging Audiences with Storytelling

    • Thanks so much, Cheryl. It was great to see you there. And thank you for all the hard work you put into making this such an insightful event.

  1. What fun!

    I love space exploration too, but I didn’t even know about NASA’s JPL in Pasadena. Their website is wonderful—a great resource for classrooms.

    I also really love their use of storytelling as a communications tool. It’s a nice way to soften the cold, steely image of scientists while still retaining the “cool” factor inherent in space research and exploration.

    I like your pictures! I agree that Curiosity is a dead ringer for WALL-E!

    Great post, Vickie. Live long and prosper!

    • Thanks so much, Rita. I, too, love the idea of inspiring future scientists and encouraging science education through these programs and all the resources on the JPL website.

      There was a great sense of mission among everyone we met at JPL, along with a healthy dose of fun and humor. What a wonderful environment for discovery!

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