My Advice to a NASA Scientist: Communicating Beyond Your Comfort Zone

Earth Day, Arbor Day and Mother’s Day have a unique connection for me: My mother is a NASA scientist whose research of plants and CO2 touches many of today’s critical issues of climate change, food security and water sustainability.

A well-published botanist who has been working in this field for more than 30 years, she currently oversees one of our orbiting satellites and a team of scientists to essentially monitor the earth’s healthiness.

From the satellite alone, we can observe Earth’s weather patterns, plant emissions, volcano eruptions, earthquakes, fires and floods.  There are data on manmade disasters, such as the methane leak in California that made so many sick, and helping in the search for Malaysian Airlines Flight 370.

Needless to say, conversations with my mother are, well, interesting.

Given my history with NASA, and as a communicator/brand expert, I’m disappointed how few Americans know about NASA’s other half of its business: Earth Sciences.

There are so many smart, kind and passionate individuals who have dedicated their lives to caring about the world we live in. And, as a result, there is so much we do know about climate change and man’s impact on Earth’s vibrancy. (Kudos to astronaut and my mother’s colleague, Piers J. Sellers, for taking a stand in his recent leadership position. Our family is here to support you in making a difference.)

There is still need to continue learning and educating the public about our planet, especially if we intend to use the natural resources around us responsibly or understand why things are changing.

In fact, just yesterday I asked my mother about a piece I saw on CBS This Morning about pollen counts and why each year we hear it’s “the worst allergy season” ever:  Is the claim hype, or a symptom of global warming playing out in nature?

My mother’s answer: Yes, it’s a sign of nature changing.

Apparently, warmer temperatures favor larger pollen production, and therefore pollen counts go up as temperatures rise.

This question led to a conversation about how warmer temperatures are wiping out important pollinators (e.g., bees, wasps, birds) we depend on for our crops and nature’s ecosystems to thrive. By changing the habitat of any one of these elements — including the uninvited yellow and black picnic guests — we actually create a chain reaction of events that alter the world around us.

And the long-term impact is unknown, other than our world will never be what it has been or is today. De-funding these projects certainly don’t help us get to answers. From my corner of the universe, all I can do as a communicator is remind my mother (and all scientists carrying out a mission to make this world a better place) of a few best practices when talking to audiences beyond the scientific and academic community:

  • Pick one to two main points you want people to remember.
    Period. Get them understanding the subject in bite sizes.
  • Get to the point fast … and please, go light on the data.
    It may be fun for the expert to get into the weeds, but for most of us we just need to know the bottom line. Only then will (some) of the data make sense and be interesting to look at.
  • Make your point/presentation/talk relatable.
    Elaborate on the main point you are making with a story. What story do you tell? One that matters to the particular person or audience you are speaking to at that time. Personalizing your story also never hurts.
  • Be willing to get out of your comfort zone.
    It’s OK to go out on a limb. Just have an opinion based on what you do know. The science may take longer to prove/disprove, but that doesn’t mean your knowledge to date isn’t sound.
  • Don’t be afraid of journalists beyond trade publications. They aren’t out to get you.
    With a little bit of practice in storytelling and negotiating the interview process, talking with journalists can be invigorating … and help spread the word.