Canada’s top space explorer, Chris Hadfield, has been described by Forbes magazine as the “most social media-savvy astronaut ever to leave the Earth.”
He returned recently to earth to well-deserved fanfare.
Hadfield has sparked a passion for space exploration across Planet Earth through his social media presence, even while living and working more than 200 miles above it as commander of the International Space Station.
All professionals can — and should — draw inspiration from what he has achieved with social media. Hadfield has accomplished something that NASA has struggled to do for 40 years: re-ignite a sustained, passionate interest in space exploration among ordinary people. He has done it using common social media tools such as Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr and Reddit, though with additional help from an onboard digital camera.
How did he do it?
He’s Personalized His Message
For starters, Hadfield struck an effective balance between the mundane and the sublime aspects of space exploration.
As one of his sons, Evan, who was quoted in the February 22, 2013 online edition of the Guardian, described it, “Dad wanted a way to help people connect to the real side of what an astronaut’s life is— not just the glamor and science, but also the day-to-day activities.”
His YouTube appearances dealt with all sorts of topics related to living in space — for example, how to brush one’s teeth and shave in space; how to clean up spills; and how to make a peanut butter sandwich in zero gravity.
By highlighting the routine aspects of his job, he’s humanized his message in a way that enables ordinary people to relate to him.
He Democratized It, Too
He organized an “Ask Me Anything” session on Reddit that drew almost 7,800 comments and followed this with the first Google+ hangout from space, answering questions via a live downlink from space.
Words with Pictures
Hadfield also understood the value of visual imagery — telling his story not just with words but with pictures, often stunningly beautiful pictures.
His daily posts feature not only natural phenomena such as rain forests, deserts and polar ice caps but also of the world’s major cities, captioned with verbally picturesque descriptions: “a somber spring night in Boston,” “Manila in the night, like a vase full of flowers,” and “Paris, well-named City of Light.” (Small wonder why Hadfield has been credited with possessing a poet’s turn of phrase.)
Hadfield carried his visual passion into his YouTube presentations, many of which generated hundreds of thousands of views. Almost all of these presentations were accompanied by visual props, whether these happened to be his sleeping compartment, his toothbrush, or his razor. He strove to be visual in all facets of his social media work.
The Art of Simple but Concrete Messaging
Hadfield, while keeping his messages simple, also was careful never to deviate beyond his core theme. Borrowing a phrase from Chip and Dan Heath, authors of the New York Times bestseller “Made to Stick,” he mastered the importance of “discarding a lot of great insights in order to let the most important insight shine.”
Virtually all of his messages were also anchored in what the Heaths term concreteness. In one of his YouTube presentations, for example, he not only discussed the challenges of maintaining dental hygiene in a weightless environment but also demonstrated it by brushing his teeth. While discussing what it’s like to sleep in zero gravity, Hadfield donned his Russian-supplied pajamas, floated into his personal cubicle and zipped himself into his sleep bag.
While earth-bound professionals may not live and work in as glamorous environment as the International Space Station, we can still learn a lot from what Hadfield has achieved.
Personalize and Democratize!
The title of an old hit song from the early 1960s, “Welcome to My World,” first popularized by Jim Reeves, could be readily applied to the success Hadfield has acquired through his social media efforts.
Hadfield has succeeded spectacularly partly by identifying his strengths, namely his passions, interest, training and unique professional perspectives, and packaging them in an unusually compelling way through social media. But in addition to capitalizing on these strengths, he also found a way to personalize his message — to welcome people into his world — that has resounded with hundreds of thousands of ordinary people across the globe.
We should be asking ourselves: What are the talents, personality traits and expertise that set us apart from others, and how can we use these to build our own social media presence?
Likewise, we need to give more thought to how we can personalize and democratize our messages more effectively. With the right amount of forethought and planning, we can learn how to weave both the mundane and remarkable aspects of our work into social media products that our users not only find entertaining and enlightening but also highly useful.
For better or worse, pictures increasingly trump text in this social media-driven age.
Hadfield understood this. Virtually all of his postings dealt in some way with visuals, whether these happened to be tweets of images from the earths’ surface or the expert use of props in his YouTube presentations.
We should be actively searching for ways to anchor our messages in compelling imagery. Most of us, if we think about it, are equipped with all sorts of visual imagery that we can weave into our social media narratives.
Borrowing a page from Hadfield, we should strive to ensure that all our messages our simple and straightforward and, equally important, as concrete as possible — and, when possible, enhanced by images that help convey the point clearly and succinctly.
Granted, in both a literal and figurative sense, we may never reach as high as Chris Hadfield. Even so, let’s not forget that we all possess a unique set of training and insights that potentially could be shared with people from many different backgrounds.
We, too, have compelling stories to tell. The sooner we envision ways to personalize, democratize and visualize our stories, the better equipped we will be to reach out to our audiences, whoever they happen to be.
Author: Jim Langcuster (@extensionguy)
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.