During the years working in the European Space Agency, I was often approached by colleagues: ‘why does everyone know NASA and nobody us?!’. The standard reply was ‘Please put a man on the moon and then come back….’
I was very wrong. The keyword isn’t ‘moon’. It’s ‘carrot’.
It’s a matter of using language. A colleague working in politics explained this vividly, some months ago. He said our brain adapted for millions of years to co-exists on a prehistoric compound, gossiping, hunting rabbits and digging for carrots.
For only -say- fifty years we have adapted to policy memo’s and White Papers. We are smart enough to understand, but we don’t connect. Take word like ‘innovation’. In my brain, nothing happens. Yes, I have an abstract notion of what innovation is, but that’s about it. Say ‘carrot’, and the crunchy feeling of chewing carrot pops up, combined with the vague smell of fresh dirt. My senses come to life.
Words that relate to the notions of the prehistoric compound are powerful communication tools – food, survival, emotions. ‘Carrot’ words open up little drawers in your mind, they recall images, sounds, emotions or -most powerful- smells. Such words make you pay attention. (See this 25 year old example how to communicate a complex notion about Cold War using only “bear” and “woods” )
Mind you, ‘Carrot’ words can be fairly modern words, like astronaut or rocket. Key is that they open those little drawers.
I find they are even more important than core messages. Core messages help our scientist to focus on what’s relevant. ‘Carrot’ helps them to grap attention and deliver the message. Nowadays, working for Delft University, a lot of the effort in our media training goes into helping people to find their ‘carrot’ words and training them to focus the attention of journalist. For a researcher working on more failure resistant asphalt, it might be ‘anti wrinkle cream’; for a bio-scientist working with shape-shifting bacteria, the word is ‘barbapapa’.
The space business is full of great ‘carrot’ words: astronaut, rocket, star, space suit, robotic arm, booster, supernova. Many words relate to exploration, danger, heroism and survival. That’s why people connect so easily to space. It also explains why astronauts and dinosaurs are the top-2 topics of interest of children.
Interestingly enough, space agencies have a tendency to avoid ‘carrot’ and use policy language. That’s understandable enough for the complex arrangements space agencies need to make with their partners, but it isn’t very effective to engage the public.
The latest news from ESA reads: “The conference highlighted the many opportunities space offers as a tool in European policy development and as a value-adder to stakeholders in industry and civil society.”
It isn’t that NASA’s projects are any better, but its language is.