Story Lesson From NASA

NASA archive photo of Apollo 8 Firing Room December 21, 1968

Story is a powerful tool that can draw an audience into a presentation by taking them on an unexpected journey into the consumers’ point of view.  If it’s a great story, it also creates new meaning for the audience and enters their long term memory to be stored and retrieved again.

So, why don’t we include more stories in presentations?

It can be difficult and time consuming to find and assemble a good story.  It also requires skills that may not be part of our core strengths so it’s a skill most of us need to learn.  And, while there are many great books and classes that teach the science of storytelling, we need a lifetime of observation, experimentation and practice to master the art of story.

I still buy books on the topic, but these days I find the most valuable lessons in storytelling come from watching great stories unfold.  One lesson happened quite unexpectedly while on a visit to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.   An early stop on the KSC tour is the Apollo/Saturn V Center Firing Room Theater.  This relatively low-tech, yet highly effective reenactment of a launch is a reminder of how a few simple techniques can help tell a compelling and memorable story.

1:  Set the stage.

NASA painstakingly recreated an Apollo-era firing room on a stage to show visitors where NASA employees and contractors monitored Apollo launches.  Each chair is draped with a jacket carrying the logos or names of the companies that were present in the firing room on launch day.  Surrounding the stage are large monitors and a countdown time clock.  The attention to detail on the stage immediately transports you back in time.  I remember being surprised at how primitive the computer equipment looked by today’s standards and yet how complex the engineering task was given the number of chairs and companies represented on the stage.

2:  Add context and shared understanding.

As you stand in the theater and absorb the details of the stage, a NASA presenter steps forward to explain that we are about to experience the final 3 minutes of the Apollo 8 launch, a historic mission with many firsts.  It was the first manned mission using the Saturn V rocket and the first mission to orbit the moon.  History and space buffs also know that 1968 was a tumultuous year in US history and that the Apollo 8 launch at the end of that year was the most watched event of its time.

The presenter didn’t make the assumption that everyone in the audience knew the story of Apollo 8, the problems that occurred in the previous unmanned tests of the Saturn V rocket or the events that defined 1968.  He took the time to share video clips that recapped the deeply emotional historical events leading up to the launch so that everyone in the theater understood the context of why tensions at NASA were very high on this launch day of December 21, 1968.

3:  Build creative tension.

With the introduction complete, the presenter starts the reenactment and the clock’s final 3 minute countdown begins.  At the same time the audio from that day between the firing room and the astronauts starts to play, lights on control panels light up and monitors surrounding the firing room stage display news footage from that day, all synchronized to the countdown clock.

You immediately feel the tension and excitement of that early morning in December more than 40 years ago.  Time slows and you start to understand how long 3 minutes can take to count down.  You become aware of the complexity of the systems integration and communication that needed to happen among many NASA employees and contractors for the Apollo 8 astronauts to complete their mission.  Most of all you gain a greater appreciation for how difficult this was to accomplish and what an impact the launch had on people who watched it live.  You understand that the Apollo 8 launch was an inspiring achievement at the end of a very challenging year.

4:  Create a lasting impression.

Once the simulation is over, you exit the theater into an enormous room and see a 363-foot Saturn V rocket on display, covering the length of building.  The rocket is displayed horizontally in sections allowing you to see some of the wiring and components contained within, leaving you with a lasting impression of its size, power and overwhelming complexity.  You start at the bottom of the rocket and as you walk the length and approach the top of the rocket, your final impression of the Saturn V rocket is the tiny capsule where the astronauts sat on launch day.  You immediately connect back to that morning in December when Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and William Anders were preparing for the Apollo 8 launch and imagine what it must have been like when the Saturn V rocket launched them into space.

It’s been a couple years since I was at the Kennedy Space Center, but I still think back to this lesson in storytelling whenever I need a little writing inspiration.

  • Have I set the stage with enough detail to capture the audience’s attention and interest about the business challenge and research goals?
  • Have I added context to explain why this particular research story matters?
  • Is there an opportunity to create an unexpected journey using audio, video, narrative stories, quotes or images to help the audience understand their customers’ point of view?
  • What is the final impression that the audience should take from this story?

Photo:  NASA archive photo of Apollo 8 launch firing room on December 21, 1968