Commander Chris Hadfield is an exceptional astronaut. I don’t say that because he has become as famous as Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, the first men to walk on the moon. Nor do I say this because he is the first Canadian to command the International Space Station (Go Canada!). It isn’t because he has 21 years experience working at space agencies all over the world (although it definitely helps!) I say that he is an exceptional astronaut because he brought the science and the beauty of space to Earth.
This week I had the great fortune of listening to Commander Chris Hadfield speak at the Let’s Talk Entertainment – Unique Lives speaker series held at the Epcor Centre’s Max Bell Theatre in Calgary. In preparation for seeing him live, I also read his international best selling book “An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth”. If you haven’t read it, I highly suggest that you do. If you haven’t seen his videos, here’s a link to his page. Don’t forget the famous “Space Oddity” video while you’re at it.
Despite his numerous achievements and the incredible work, Chris Hadfield remains extremely humble. He reiterates that he was just doing his job — the job of all astronauts — to train, fly and support space missions. But also to inform, to educate and to work on behalf of humanity. The Canadian Space Agency explicitly states that Canadian Astronauts “play a key role in raising awareness about Canada’s activities in space and inspiring youth to explore the fields of science and technology.” That is exactly what he did. What separates him from his peers (his USP) is that he is the first astronaut to really breach the gap between earth and space. He connected humanity to the ISS in a real, meaningful and every day sort of way, and he did it using these key communication concepts.
1) Speak Plainly
Chris Hadfield is a bright guy. He has millions of dollars worth of education, is an engineer, a fighter pilot and a rocket scientist. And yet when you hear him speak or read his book he comes across as someone you’d want to sit around and have a beer with. He never talks down to anyone and he doesn’t use complicated jargon; he just speaks plainly. He has one of the most difficult and most intellectually demanding jobs on and off the planet, but every time he opens his mouth he is completely relatable, reachable and downright normal. He may be sharing “a unique human experience,” as Hadfield puts it, but he does it in a way that makes it accessible to everyone. When he tweets, he is not yelling out into the vastness of the internet; he is welcoming you into his home with a quiet “come on board if you like.”
“I went on this trip last year, and I brought some pictures with me to show … if that’s ok” – Commander Chris Hadfield
2) Be Interesting/Tell Stories
Now I know what you’re thinking: Shannon it was easy for Commander Hadfield to be interesting — he was tweeting from space! It literally doesn’t get more interesting than that! And I agree that Space is endlessly fascinating, but that doesn’t always translate into entertaining or interesting content. This goes back to speaking plainly. Commander Hadfield could have gone through the physics of how everything worked, or he could have written out the procedurals of each and every failsafe (of which there are thousands) — but he didn’t. Instead he told stories. He spoke of the note his wife sent him before takeoff that read “I love you, don’t die, (I have insurance : ) ) followed by his response – “My wife is a practical woman.” Or how one day a cosmonaut came to him speaking a mix of Russian and English about fireworks outside. After realizing the man did not mean celebratory fireworks on the surface, but rather a nasty ammonia leak, the ISS (and their Earth-based support staff) were able to put together an impromptu space walk that ended up saving the ISS. He’s the type of guy that starts stories you just know you have to stick around to hear the end of:
“There’s an old astronaut saying — there’s no major problem you can’t make worse” – Commander Chris Hadfield
3) Add Value
The massive popularity of the “Space Oddity” video gave Chris Hadfield the voice and the platform to speak about whatever he wanted. He chose to continue educating, informing and exciting the public about science, space and the ISS. He has chosen to continue to add value to his audience instead of retiring into obscurity. Astronauts spend most of their lives acting in support positions and so he measures success on the overall success of the team, the mission, the Canadian Space Agency and the International Space community as a whole. He shares pictures, videos and interesting facts because that’s what the people want to know. It is what they find valuable in their relationship with him. He doesn’t share content to become famous, he shares it because he wants to add value and to be useful. Because of his work, there has been a resurgence of interest in space travel, in science and in international cooperation.
He has done immeasurable good for Canada’s reputation as well. His only prideful moment during his talk was when he told the story of when he decided (at age nine no less) that he was going to be an astronaut. A dream that was impossible at the time. Astronauts were American or Russian and there was no such thing as the Canadian Space Agency. Now he can stand tall and say with a smile:
“Canadians Command Space ships” – Commander Chris Hadfield
4) Be Available
Commander Chris Hadfield made himself available in a way that no other astronaut has been. Not only did he do the requisite interviews, but he also made a point to chat with people online, (including another famous Canadian linked to Space, William Shatner!). He hosted an AMA on Reddit while in quarantine so people could ask him questions and Skyped with thousands of children in schools across Canada from the ISS. Back on Earth, Commander Hadfield has written articles in publications like The Globe and Mail, wrote an internationally best selling novel and has had numerous speaking engagements all over Canada and the USA where he gets to interact with people face to face. He has also recently taken a position as reoccurring contributor on CBC’s The National. He was even the Parade Marshall for the Calgary Stampede in 2013. One-way communications is a thing of the past. Now when you share information and reach for your audience, it is imperative that they are allowed to reach back. And reach back they do:
5) Be Consistent
“Good Morning Earth” @Cmdr_Hadfield tweeted every morning from space before he shared a new and interesting picture or fact he had prepared for the day.
“I took 45,000 pictures while in space… you would have too” – Commander Chris Hadfield
Commander Hadfield tweeted nearly every day he was on board the ISS giving the world an unprecedented look at space and at the daily life of astronauts. He created and shared content, added value, held discussions and made himself available — on a consistent and regular basis. This wasn’t periodic updates, this was every day as he lived and worked aboard the ISS. He made himself a reliable source of information, that his audience recognized and rewarded him for. Over the course of one year his twitter followers grew from 20 thousand to over 1.07 million.
While I don’t think you should expect these kinds of numbers from your small business, it is important to keep in mind these communication lessons. It is important to engage with your audience in a way they can relate to, be interesting, tell stories, add value, be consistent and most importantly, be available. If your audience feels like they matter to you, they will keep coming back.
Want to learn more about reaching your audience and other communications lessons? Contact me for a free consultation. Hit subscribe for more amazing content delivered to your inbox once a week!