Hidden Figures and Unclear Facts: Lessons in Clear Communication from Hollywood and NASA

The movie Hidden Figures shines a light on a long-neglected part of American history. But communication problems didn't disappear with the Space Race: we're still dealing with them today.

NASA astronaut in space
Source: Pixabay, via Pexels

The breakout film Hidden Figures made waves recently for shining a light on the until-now largely unsung work of black female mathematicians during the Space Race. These incredible women were among NASA’s “human computers”, hand-calculating the flight trajectories of some of the U.S. space program’s most renowned missions. Their work helped ensure that astronaut John Glenn not only became the first American to orbit the Earth (three times!), but returned home safe and sound.

While the movie’s story is fascinating in and of itself, it also does something that modern-day Hollywood frequently dismisses as impossible (or at least unprofitable). It tells a story about space exploration focusing on intellect, not flashy special effects.

Communicating complex information isn’t easy. Making it both accessible and engaging for an audience of laymen is harder still. As copywriters, this is something we come up against every day. We’ve written about the importance of clarity before in relation to the Oxford comma, but the words used are just as important as the grammar that contains them. Whether it’s space exploration or the intricacies of something like financial or legal copywriting, clear and precise communication is crucial.

When communication goes wrong

Never was the importance of clear communication more evident than in the case of the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster. In 2003, the Columbia shuttle disintegrated upon re-entry, shocking the nation and killing all seven crew members. Immediately after lift off, foam insulation had come off, hit the left wing, and broke through the wing’s thermal protection. The hole went undetected for two weeks while the shuttle orbited Earth. 

According to information design pioneer Edward Tufte, the fatal failure in the thermal protection was also a bureaucratic failure to communicate. In fact, he did a famous white paper about it: PowerPoint Does Rocket Science–and Better Techniques for Technical Reports. Tufte, a vocal critic of PowerPoint, found that the 28 slides that the Boeing engineers put together downplayed the threat of foam insulation breaking off and critically damaging the shuttle. How could such bright minds present potentially misleading findings?

The error didn’t lay so much in their calculations; it was in their communications.  Vitally important facts were not immediately evident, and lives were lost as a result. Here are some of the preventable problems the engineers’ report contained:

  • Myopic definition – The headline in a key slide didn’t address the full scope of a potential problem. As drafts of the presentation moved through the hierarchical ranks, the senior engineers became more limited in defining the issue.
  • Varying terminology – Units of measurement were shown in at least three different ways. Inconsistent? Yes. Confusing? Potentially.
  • Vague pronouns – What does “it” actually refer to? Especially in technical info, vagueness can be dangerous.
  • Casual use of important qualifiers – The word “significant” and its step-sister “significantly” were used 5 times on a single slide. Let’s face it, after the third time it loses significant impact.
  • Format dictatorship -The PowerPoint format artificially limited the ability to lay out sentences with precise wording. And as the font sizes decreased, the points being made got marginalized.
  • Burying the lead – The most important finding was the last point in a low-level bullet at the bottom of a jam-packed slide. We just buried the lead here. Ideally, we should have placed this point up top.

It seems hard to believe that a few poor communication choices could have resulted in such a tragedy. But the point stands. In marketing, failure to get your point across in an easily-digestible way causes potential customers to lose interest, raises your bounce rates, and can damage your reputation. In other fields, the consequences can be grave.

The importance of clarity in communication

Communicating complex calculations
Source: Lum3n, via Pexels

Most people aren’t “human computers.” We have short attention spans and find ourselves going cross-eyed when faced with written information that’s overly dense, cluttered with incomprehensible technical jargon, or so poorly structured that its meaning takes several reads to discern. As we discussed in another blog post this month, editing is an often overlooked art form that a lot of writing could benefit from. 

Clear, precise, consistent wording should always take precedence over a rigid format. This is as true for web copy or newsletters as it is for technical reports. Whatever your format (even if it’s a PowerPoint deck), the words you use and the way you place them is paramount to conveying meaning. If your reader is left confused or ambivalent, something has gone wrong. 

Here at MarketSmiths, we take writing and editing very seriously. If you’re struggling to get your company’s message across, we can give it the tune-up it deserves. Get in touch today to find out more.

Michele Graham

Michele Graham

Clients warm up to Michele immediately and so do those who read her writing. As MarketSmiths' Senior Director of Strategy, Michele makes even the most complex B2B concepts inviting and knows how to add just the right touch of personality. Michele's experienced in three-word taglines and 30-page websites and everything in-between—white papers, press releases, e-communications, brochures, social media, and video scripts. She's worked at award winning agencies and in strategy at HBO and Tri-Star Pictures. She loves (and we mean loves) anything that gets the wind in her hair—boating, biking, skiing.

Michele earned her business acumen with an MBA in Finance from New York University and a bachelor’s degree in marketing, summa cum laude, from Boston University.

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