Communicating About Space: Pitfalls & Priorities

Flyer GraphicAs promised, I’m sharing the presentation I gave to the joint HAL5/STC meeting in Huntsville, Alabama on Thursday, May 9. I had an audience of around 25 people, which wasn’t too shabby. I appreciated the opportunity to talk people from both groups.

A video of the talk can be found on a friend’s site, though he did add some commentary to the front end. My talk starts at around 9:00: 

The PDF of the presentation can be found here: HAL5-STC Space Communications

Cover Slide

Hi, I’m Bart Leahy. Welcome to my talk, and thank you for coming!

Slide 2 – Telling you what I’m going to tell you

In the tradition of great presenters everywhere, I’m going to tell you what I’ll tell you, tell you, and then tell you what I told you.

I’ll give you a little bit about my background;

Talk about why clear communications are important for the space business;

Share some of the pitfalls of space communications and how to avoid them, then shift over to priorities for effective communications;

Then I’ll finish off by telling you what I told you and take any questions.

Slide 3 – My background

So: my background.

I started out in this business as a space advocate. I began writing for the National Space Society (NSS) in 2001. I moved to Huntsville in 2006 and helped organize and run the 2011 International Space Development Conference.

I’ve also written for the Mars Foundation, Space Foundation, and the Space Frontier Foundation on policy, book reviews, technical reporting, and fundraising matters.

I started working for the space business professionally as a contractor at Marshall Space Flight Center, where I wrote conference papers, speeches, technical documents, and education and outreach materials for the Ares/Constellation Program, the SERVIR Program, and the Space Launch System or SLS.

After my contract ended, I ran communications for a small engineering firm called Zero Point Frontiers, where I did proposals, technical documents, and PR before getting squeezed out by a government shutdown. (I know: those never happen.)

I’ve been a freelance writer since 2014. I’ve written reports for NASA Headquarters; I currently do technical writing and editing for a large New Space launch vehicle company I can’t name; and I’ve done proposal writing for a small company that designs and builds space-based navigation and communication systems.

I’ve also done reporting about the space industry for Spaceflight Insider,, Ad Astra, and others.

When I haven’t been doing space stuff, I’ve been writing for Disney, Department of Defense, Nissan; Florida Hospital; various nonprofit groups; and the Science Cheerleaders.

All of this is to say, if it has to communicating about space, odds are, I’ve been there, done that.

Slide 4 – Why clear communications are important for space

Let’s get down to it, shall we, and talk about why clear communications are so important for the space business. I’m passionate about space and I want to see it communicated well.

Slide 5 – Apathy

Apathy is still a problem with the general public when it comes to space activities. We want people to care, we don’t want to be so boring that we’ve got puppies yawning every time we start talking about space.

Slide 6 – Mission Success

Anyone know what this is? This is the Mars Climate Orbiter. It crashed into Mars in 1999 due to a miscommunication over which units would be used: U.S. or metric.

Slide 7 – Safety

Safety is an ongoing concern. These are pictures of Ariane 5 from its first attempted flight in 1996. This was another software issue. They tried to plug a 64-bit integer into a 16-bit field. The computer couldn’t handle that and plugged in a test variable, which caused the rocket to shift 90 degrees right after liftoff. It’s a communication issue because the potential impacts of carrying over that field length from Ariane 4 weren’t fully explained. We want space hardware to operate safely, yes?

Slide 8 – Sensible regulation

Sensible regulations by the government will be a concern in the future because the more things we do up there, the more lawmakers are going to want to put their paws on it to make sure we’re all safely regulated. It’s important that our elected officials are educated on space so that they understand the potential impacts of the laws and regulations they want to pass.

Slide 9 – More people living & working in space

In the end, we want more people living and working in space, experts and average citizens alike. To make that happen, the public needs to be educated about how things work and why.

Slide 10 – Pitfalls

What are some of the pitfalls involved in communicating about space?

Slide 11 – Assuming space communications are for “everybody”

Assuming that space communications are for “everybody.” If you are posting something on your website or for general broadcast, you still shouldn’t necessarily assume a “general” audience. To paraphrase George Orwell, some audiences are more equal than others.



Slide 12 – The Pareto Principle

Anyone familiar with the Pareto Principle? (Look to see if anyone knows what it is, acknowledge if they’re right/close, then say:)

It’s a concept invented by an Italian economist, Vilfredo Pareto.

It basically says that 80 percent of consequences from a given activity come from 20 percent of the causes.

It’s also known as the 80/20 rule.

What this means for space communicators:

Your communications should focus on the top 20% of stakeholders paying for your efforts

I know, this is a little undemocratic or heretical. Space is supposed to be for everyone, right? However, as a practical communications matter, not that many people in the general public are paying attention.And quite often, the ones paying attention are the ones footing the bill or making the decisions. This is especially true for government agencies and publicly traded companies. Therefore, it helps to write with a target audience in mind, preferably one that’s paying attention, which I’ll delve into in a few minutes.

Slide 13 – Pitfall #2: Believing that space activities can only be explained one way

Pitfall #2 is believing that space activities can only be explained one way. Why do you suppose some folks think this way? Looking for (or say): Because they want to be technically right/correct. I got into a rather heated discussion with an engineer at NASA because he “fixed” a document I sent to him for technical evaluation because it wasn’t written the way an engineer would write it. I was using simpler or more colloquial terms for the engineering. “You’re dumbing it down,” was how he put it. However…

Slide 14 – Simple need not = “dumbing down”

Simple need not equal “dumbing down.”

You can use clear language that is not AS technical as jargon and still get the point across. This is especially important when you’re writing to non-engineering audiences. It’s important to use words that people hear in everyday speech.

This means you can use more common words when talking to audiences outside your usual peer group:

  • “Soil” instead of “regolith”
  • “Rocket” instead of “launch vehicle”
  • “Fuel” instead of “propellant”
  • “Elliptical orbit near the Moon” instead of “Near Rectilinear Halo Orbit (NRHO)”

If you use nothing but technical terms and acronyms, your audience will get lost.

However, that doesn’t mean you have to get seriously silly or stupid. posted this image a couple years ago. It’s a diagram of Saturn V using only the top 1,000 English words people use on a daily basis. Instead of Saturn V, they had “Up Goer Five.” Or, instead of helium, they called it, “that kind of air that makes your voice funny.” If you go too far in the simplistic direction, people will think you’re talking down to them.

Regardless of your audience’s anticipated reading level, if you lose them, you’ve lost the battle, which is to get your proposal accepted, get more funding, et cetera.

What this means for people communicating in space organizations is that You need to write clearly to meet your audience’s needs!

Slide 15 – Pitfall #3: Not explaining benefits of space activities

Pitfall #3: Not explaining the benefits of space activities or hardware. An example for John or Jane Q. Taxpayer might be…dare I say it? Launch vehicle statistics.

I have a rocket that can carry more than any other rocket on the planet.

Or, I have a rocket that’s reusable. The bottom-line question you need to answer when you’re explaining your hardware to an outside audience is…

Slide 16 – So what? – Explaining the WIIFMs

“So what?” This amounts to explaining the WIIFMs to your audience, however defined. Who knows what a WIIFM is? Looking for (or say):“What’s in it for me?” Exactly! I love human beings, they’re some of my favorite people, but they’re often selfish at heart, so you need to explain why theyshould care about what you’re saying, preferably at the beginning of any document you’re producing.

This can mean doing something simple like summarizing your key content in plain language up front.  This means including things like functions or capabilities, benefits, costs, dangers, and threats.

Another important thing to do to avoid this pitfall is: don’t assume that your audience will know the implications of your content.

This applies to the sciences andengineering! I worked on a telescope proposal once and I was trying to get the principal investigator to explain to me the benefits. He was talking about arc-seconds of sky, wavelength sensitivity, et cetera. Finally he got frustrated with me and said, “It allows you to see more farther away!” “Aha!” I said. “I can use that.” Sometimes people need things spelled out for them to get their bearings.

Slide 17 – Priorities

So what should your priorities be when you’re communicating about space activities? I’m going to share with you the formulation I shared with my students when I taught business writing at UAH.

Slide 18 – Audience, situation, outcome, & WIIFMs

Whenever I get a new writing assignment, the most important questions I want answers to are audience, situation, and outcome.

  • Audience – who’s listening? This covers more than just specific names on a distribution list. It includes things like their rank within an organization, their education, whether they’re a civil servant or a contractor, and what their relationship is to the topic.
  • Situation – under what circumstances are they receiving the message? This covers issues such as whether the topic is urgent or not, when is the audience likely to read it (3 p.m. on a Friday or 9 a.m. on a Monday morning), whether it’s good news or bad, and how many people or dollars are affected by the content.
  • Outcome – how should the audience react? Upon reading your document—and it could be a proposal, email, or piece of marketing collateral—you should have it in mind what you want your audience to do with the information: just learn it? Comply with it if it’s a new regulation or directive? Respond emotionally—like celebrating a proposal win or a successful launch? Make a decision if one is still pending? Or agree with what you’re persuading the audience to do?
  • WIIFMs – what are my organization’s priorities and how do they match the audience’s WIIFMs? I didn’t include this in my class. However, it’s important that you understand the primary WIIFM of your audience or audiences. In the end, you want to know clearly, “What am I trying to communicating, and why should my audience care?”

Slide 19 – Who’s Communicating?

What you say in the space business depends a great deal on whom you’re representing. And there are a lot of players in the industry, which I’ll break out as follows:

  • Government agencies
  • Private sector
  • Academic institutions
  • Nonprofits/advocacy organizations

What I’ll do here is break down audience, situation, and outcomes for people working in each type of organization. Then I’ll add a couple of WIIFMs as pointers.

Slide 20 – Priorities (Government agencies)

Let’s start with government—NASA, DoD, FAA, NSF, what have you. If you’re working in one of those organizations, who might some of your audiences be? Looking for (or say):

  • Elected officials/staff
  • Civil servants (incl. astronauts)
  • Officers/enlisted military personnel
  • Other government agencies
  • Industry/contractors
  • Academic institutions
  • International partners
  • Media

The situations for government communications? Anyone want to guess? (Looking for or say):

  • Technical reports
  • Budgets
  • Solicitations/RFPs
  • Congressional testimony
  • Requirements/regulations
  • Recruiting

Given those situations, what might be some of the preferred outcomes? (Looking for or say):

  • Ongoing/increased budgets
  • Teaming agreements
  • Compliant proposals
  • Products/services acquired
  • Space policies executed
  • Safe/compliant space operations
  • Taxpayer money used wisely
  • Qualified applicants hired

Slide 21 – WIIFMs (Government agencies)

Strategically, are the primary WIIFMs for government audiences?

  • If you’re talking to other agencies or contractors, they want to know how does this affect my budget or schedule?
  • If you’re talking to elected officials, they want to know what will it cost?
  • If you’re talking to John/Jane Q. Taxpayer, they want to know whether their tax dollars are being used wisely and effectively.

Slide 22 – Priorities (Private sector)

The game works similarly for the other players. Primary audiences for the private sector would include:

  • Customers/government
  • Stockholders/employees
  • Academic institutions
  • Potential employees
  • Media

Key communication situations would include things like:

  • Proposals/sales & marketing
  • Product/service delivery
  • Reports
  • Technical manuals/instructions
  • Lobbying
  • Teaming agreements
  • Hiring

Preferred outcomes, then, would be:

  • Profits made
  • Continued or additional sales/contracts
  • Products/services delivered or executed safely & successfully
  • Compliance with laws/regulations
  • Qualified applicants join organization
  • Business-friendly policies, laws, or regulations

Slide 23 – WIIFMs (Private sector)

Private sector audiences want to know…

  • Government agencies’ WIIFM: are you obeying the law, following the law, or meeting the intent of regulations?
  • Are you meeting technical, cost, and schedule goals?
  • Are you meeting my requirements?
  • Defense and intelligence agencies’ WIIFM: are you protecting sensitive technology/information?
  • For customers of all types, companies have to demonstrate the benefits of your product/service—better, faster, cheaper, pick two (WIIFM)

Slide 24 – Priorities (Academic institutions)

The primary audiences for academic institutions could include:

  • Government agencies/NSF
  • Industry
  • Administration (of the university)
  • Current/potential students
  • Alumni
  • Media

Colleges and universities would communicate in the following situations:

  • Grant applications
  • Space-related activities
  • Teaming agreements
  • Reports
  • Technical manuals/instructions
  • Lobbying
  • Recruiting

Preferred outcomes of some of these situations would include:

  • Research funding
  • Successful space operations
  • Teaming agreements executed
  • Students educated, degrees/post-docs awarded
  • Products/services acquired
  • Students hired after graduation

Slide 25 – WIIFMs (Academic institutions)

  • How is my grant money being spent?
  • How will you/your students work with your partners?
  • What are the benefits of your research?

Slide 26 – Priorities Nonprofit/advocacy organizations

Primary audiences for nonprofit organizations will include:

  • Primary donors
  • Members
  • Potential members
  • Government agencies
  • Media

Their communication situations would include:

  • Funding drives
  • Organization programming
  • Lobbying
  • Outreach
  • Recruiting

Preferred outcomes for nonprofits would include:

  • Obtaining funding for organization programs
  • Policies, laws, or regulations in line with organization goals
  • Increased membership
  • Public awareness of and engagement with organization activities

Slide 27 – WIIFMs Nonprofit/advocacy organizations

Strategic priorities for advocacy groups like HAL5 would be to:

  • What actions are you taking to advance your cause?
  • What do I get for my money?
  • What are the benefits of your cause to someone like me?

Slide 26 – Telling you what I told you

  • The more we do in space, the more people need clear communications
    • Build excitement
    • Promote safety
    • Ensure sensible regulation
    • An informed public is an engaged public
  • Avoid the pitfalls – don’t assume:
    • Space communications are for everyone
    • Everyone understands technical jargon
    • Everyone will know the benefit(s) of your work
  • Focus on the priorities:
    • Have a specific audience in mind
    • Be mindful of the situation
    • Have an end in mind
    • Include a WIIFM

Slide 26 – Final Thoughts

  • Effective technical communication cannot guarantee effective outcomes; however, it can:
    • Articulate intentions
    • Present positive image
    • Deliver documentation effectively
    • Share the right messages with the right people at the right time
    • Inspire others to want to live and work in space (and that’s the whole point!)

Good luck to you all, and happy communicating!

Slide 27 – Q&A

I don’t recall all the questions I received, but some of them included:

Q: It often feels like we’re preaching to the choir. What would you recommend for reaching younger people who aren’t as likely to join groups or attend conventions?

A: Go where your audience is. If they’re reading Vox or Slateor Vice,write articles in those places, and tie space activities, progress, or technologies to topics that are already of interest to them here on Earth. My master’s thesis addressed this topic, as well. There’s a shorter version of it on The Space Review.

Q: What do you think about the debates going on within the space community? It seems like it’s very fractured.

A: It’s come to my attention that the space community is filled with a lot of very bright people, many of whom have strong opinions about where we should go next. I welcome that diversity. However, I would prefer to see less acrimony and more focusing on the specifics of different points of view rather than trashing someone else’s viewpoint: say, “Here’s what’s good about my approach and here are the problems with other approaches” rather than trashing the other guys or questioning their motives. But I’m naïve that way.

Q: What advice would you give to a technical writer who’s wanting to enter the space field?

A: First off, read my blog! I have a whole page of links dedicated to answering questions for people who want to work for NASA or elsewhere in the business. Also, get to know people in the community; volunteer for advocacy organizations; read some of the Big Books that have influenced the arguments we mentioned earlier: The High Frontier, The Case for Mars, Paul Spudis’ book on the Moon, so you get familiar with the arguments; and take some time to get familiar with the acronyms and terminology of space so you don’t end up asking on your first day at NASA (as I did), “What’s a turbopump?”

Q: How do you get paid?

A: It depends on the customer. In some cases, I get hired to do just one job, like help with a proposal. In other cases, I sign on to a longer-term contract, and work until I reach the dollar-amount ceiling.

About Bart Leahy

Freelance Technical Writer, Science Cheerleader Event & Membership Director, and an all-around nice guy. Here to help.
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