Crosstown Digital Communications

Retaining a Sense of Awe in Research News

One of the themes of my presentation “Storytelling as a Framework for Higher Ed Web Marketing” is that we in higher ed are in the business of celebrating ordinary people doing extraordinary things. The feats of the NASA scientists who orchestrated last night’s landing of the Mars Curiosity rover certainly fall under that category.

What’s remarkable – beyond, you know, lowering a rover to the Martian surface with a skycrane – is how NASA told that story. They did it with amazing content that informed, entertained and engaged a rapt online audience (even at 1:30AM EDT on a Sunday night) with not just personality but also humor and drama. (Tim Nekritz wrote a great blog post this morning talking about how they expertly leveraged shared experiences and the real-time web.)

But most importantly, their content had a heaping dose of awe. Through videos, tweets, live-streams and blog posts, NASA conveyed unabashed acknowledgment of the fact that the events transpiring were absolutely amazing, reflecting a very human longing for knowledge and thrill of discovery. And that, to me, was one of its strengths.

Why So Serious?

I couldn’t help but think about higher education (as I often do) and how we talk about research. We want to own our research accomplishments. We want to be noticed because of them, in order to attract funding, faculty, students and partnerships. In doing so, we often think organizationally, clinging to journal citations, jargon and internal priorities in shaping how we communicate about research. Research, after all, is a very serious thing.

But as I read about Curiosity – a highly important scientific undertaking with not just societal impact but also very real, hard science behind it – I wondered why we in higher ed can’t talk about research with the same level of personality, (appropriate) humor and downright inspirational quality that NASA employs. Research is serious business, sure, but it’s also important and awe-inspiring and creative and, sometimes, beautiful. We could be covering a technology that will help save lives on the battlefield, or a treatment for a rare disease that gives thousands of sufferers hope, or environmental analysis that will renew a community. These are amazing things that matter, and our faculty and students are diligently pursuing these solutions every day in the lab across the quad.

Sure, we need to write for the grant funding agencies, and sure, we need to write for the tech transfer partnerships. But if we’re trying to convey to the world how we are relevant, essential and innovative, can’t we find a way to retain that sense of awe in our communications? To capture some of the secret sauce that kept people up way past their bedtimes last night?

Telling the Story of our Research

Employing some of the basic elements of storytelling can help enliven our research coverage while embracing that sense of awe. Just look at the drama pervading the above “Seven Minutes of Terror” video (while still conveying the science and showing off some of the engineers behind the mission) and the quirky character of the (absolutely awesome) @MarsCuriosity Twitter account. Even NASA’s tagline for the mission, “Dare Mighty Things” (borrowed from a quote by Theodore Roosevelt) brands the initiative with historical significance, making it feel like just the latest chapter in an ongoing narrative of American ambition and accomplishment.

As if we needed more drama, NASA is facing major budget cuts. Their need to demonstrate relevance and value is urgent. And what is one of their key strategies for doing so? Telling (and owning) their story, of course, through smart and savvy use of various content tools at their disposal, while making it something in which we could all participate and be invested. For a cost of $7 per American, they gave us a hell of a show – and the curtain has really just gone up.

True, we may not be landing rovers on Mars at our university. (Or maybe we arehat tip to Kyle Judah.) But we’re doing things that matter. Can we find a way to inspire and engage in our research coverage the way that NASA has done?

Do you have an example of higher ed research coverage that not only informs and educates but also inspires and engages? Please share in the comments!

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