Scientists are great master storytellers. One of the Voyager themes at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena is “reaching out to touch where no one has gone before.” IABC-LA members got to participate in an event never before offered through the chapter: “Master Storytellers: Jet Propulsion Laboratory”…an extraordinary look into NASA’s JPL California Institute of Technology where scientists and engineers have so many stories to tell.
Dana Edler, JPL’s Communications Specialist and IABC-LA Chapter President-Elect ’12-’13 led an out-of-this-world event featuring a tour of JPL’s von Karman Visitor Center and Space Flight Operations Facility before members heard insight into the use of storytelling communications.
Our tour guide explained JPL’s focus on robotic planetary spacecraft and astrophysics, not jet propulsion at this time, leading to missions such as the exploration of Mars. When visiting the Space Flight Operations Facility, the precise communications data told a story as code and numbers came through on big screens from satellites. While we were not visiting the Facility during a launch of a Mars mission, our tour guide explained the relatively quiet room was a good thing…it meant that all the robotics and satellites, missions and projects are humming along.
Dana welcomed all of us and briefly discussed utilizing storytelling as an alternative to formal, fact-filled yet dry presentations that simply do not get an audience excited.
Stephen Kulczycki, Deputy Director of Communications and Education, and Dr. Teresa Bailey, Information Science Specialist and JPL FIOA Liaison, discussed the methods of JPL’s storytelling to inform, educate and persuade audiences. While scientists’ and engineers’ data can be as boring as a bad Powerpoint presentation, these two communicators presented just how lively scientists and engineers can truly be when their passion for the planets and for discovery is the focus. Stephen presented a few videos with different tones…one example was an emotionally-charged video on the history of the NASA space programs and how a disconnect exists between what the U.S. public perceives as too much money spent on space exploration and what is actually spent. “How much would you pay for the universe?” was the theme.
Dr. Teresa Bailey developed the JPL organizational storytelling program beginning in 2000 and wrote her dissertation “The Experience of the Storyteller: Moving from Personal to Collective Knowledge Sharing.” Teresa emphasized the importance of experiential knowledge sharing and “stepping into the light”. Teresa shared insights with us that while she had to endure some teasing at first about the very concept of storytelling (“Will there be cookies, Teresa?” came from a few JPL participants!)…these events soon became an engaging part of the JPL communications culture, including a more opened-space remodel and arranging furniture, and using props and audience participation to better serve the storytelling events. These events allowed scientists and engineers to connect his or her personal experience to a project or mission illuminating knowledge in a way that placed expected facts and figures in their rightful place: as supporting information, not lead information and therefore losing the passion of the “why”. As Stephen noted, the scientists and engineers truly become stirred up when they are connected to “the why” they want to explore a specific planet or star…dream makers as opposed to machine makers.
Big universal thanks to IABC-LA shining star, Dana Edler, Membership Chair, who did a superior job in pulling all the JPL event pieces and parts together. Thanks also to Cheryl Farrell who was instrumental in helping with event registration and welcoming guests. Adam Kevorkian also assisted Dana with the event. Thank you, Adam! Catering provided by Jack M. Smiler of Black Diamond Catering.
We thank JPL for the overwhelming hospitality to IABC-LA during the tour and event. And finally, JPL really is a cool, quirky place… I walked to my car post-event and was greeted by a live deer in the parking lot. Perhaps a satellite directed him to go there.