How rockets, helicopters and good science communication work

I’m so glad that four-year-old Lucas Whitely (and his dad) contacted NASA for some help with Lucas’s homework. If they hadn’t we wouldn’t get to watch, enjoy and learn from this:

Why is NASA engineer Ted Garbeff’s video response to Lucas so great? Because it’s all about Lucas.

It’s not about how great NASA is (although they certainly picked up some PR credit as a result of this video, which did the internet rounds when it was originally posted). It’s not even about how clever Ted is (although as a research engineer in experimental fluid physics at NASA’s Ames Research Center, he obviously is). It’s about answering a child’s questions in an interesting and engaging way.

The key strength of Ted’s response is that it explains some fundamental ideas about science and technology in simple, relatable terms without dumbing it down. It doesn’t use complicated words when simpler ones are more than adequate. It uses examples that a four-year-old English child would understand – to the point of using pounds and pence instead of dollars and cents.

(In fact,  I think Ted’s explanation of counting by starting with 10 (fingers), then 100 (pence), then 1000 (grains of sand in a spoonful) before talking about really big numbers is elegant.)

The other strength of the video is its authenticity. High production values have their place, but not in a video message to a four-year-old. This really is just Ted answering some questions about space, and telling Lucas about his fun job where he gets to play with cool toys and learn about the world.

So, lessons from Ted:

  • Remember who your audience is, and speak to them in terms they understand.
  • Explain abstract concepts using concrete, real world examples that your audience can relate to.
  • Explaining a complex idea using simple words and concepts is not dumbing it down (or certainly shouldn’t be).
  • There are many opportunities when more can be achieved for an organisation or brand by authentic, honest communication than staged, corporate messaging.