Thought Catalysts: Chris Hadfield on Digital Storytelling

March 1, 2017 Nicola Brown, Speakers' Spotlight

There are leaders and then there are followers. Generally the idea is to be the former. 

But perhaps it's worth a shot to look at this phrase the other way around. Maybe to be a leader, it's worth being a follower. 

The people who lead the way with awesome ideas and unique talents did so by acquiring knowledge and applying it in new and interesting ways. We all need to learn stuff to lead stuff. And those who do it best inspire others to act. 

They are Thought Catalysts. Here they are as told by the movers and shakers from Speakers' Spotlight


“Good morning, Earth!” That is how Colonel Chris Hadfield—writing on Twitter—woke up the world every day while living for five months aboard the International Space Station. Through his 21-years as an astronaut, three spaceflights, and 2600 orbits of Earth, Colonel Hadfield has become a worldwide sensation, harnessing the power of social media to make outer space accessible to millions and infusing a sense of wonder into our collective consciousness not felt since humanity first walked on the Moon. Called “the most famous astronaut since Neil Armstrong,” Colonel Hadfield continues to bring the marvels of science and space travel to everyone he encounters.

Once in a while, amid a sea of digital content, a single piece of digital storytelling emerges that really connects with us in a profound way. I will never forget the first time I saw Canadian astronaut and then Commander of the International Space Station Chris Hadfield singing David Bowie’s Space Oddity—in space.

This video now has close to 35 million views, 15 million of which happened in the first two weeks it was posted. In addition to being an astronaut, Hadfield has been described as a social media rockstar for how he leveraged digital platforms like YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, and Tumblr to bring awareness and inspiration to a new generation about space. He created short, fun videos showing us what day-to-day life is like in the Space Station, he sent photos every day of the view, and he stayed very connected to us here on Earth by answering questions and even holding live video chats.

Hadfield brought the world the previously untapped human side of space. He made the world of an astronaut more accessible not by showing us the technical work and research being done, but by showing us himself, and all the tiny details that happen in those in-between moments of life in orbit—what do you eat, how do you sleep, what happens to your tears when you cry in space? He showed us that at the end of the day, he was just a regular guy doing what he loved.

The success of Hadfield’s digital presence stems from something much more fundamental: who he is, and how he approaches his own life.

1. Learn to love the process, or change your goals.

Hadfield’s ultimate dream was to be an astronaut and go to space—but he knew that he wouldn’t even have a chance if he didn’t love the process of getting there; all the prep work. He never let that end goal be the only justification for the means. In his book, An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth, he explained that if he didn’t love all the small moments and challenges that shape the journey, he would never have pursued that dream. In an interview with Peter Mansbridge on CBC he offered this advice: “recognize the fact that the preparation for those moments is your life, and in fact, that’s the richness of your life.”

2. Don’t take yourself too seriously, and have fun with your work.

Through his photos and videos from space, Hadfield proved that you can work extremely hard and still have fun with your work. He never forgot about the fundamental sense of wonder he first had as a young boy about the idea of going to space and just how amazing it is that we can do such a thing. When you’re dealing with sensitive equipment and complex processes—and there’s very little room for error—it’s all too easy to fall prey to stress and forget to enjoy your time. When you have fun with your work, that lightness and optimism is reflected in the final product.

Remind yourself of these mind-sets each day, and you’ll be setting yourself up for both success and happiness. This is what Hadfield has done since the age of nine when he first knew he wanted to go to space. It was his attitude, just as much as his dedication, that propelled him forward.

Digital Storytelling Takeaways from Hadfield’s Legacy


1. Get good at real-world analogies and finding personal significance.

When dealing with complex subject matter, it can be hard to find the thread of relevance to your audience. How do you communicate the importance of your work or the significance of your achievements to people who don’t have the first idea about what you do? Sometimes the answer is not to tell them about your work at all, but to draw analogies to the kinds of experiences your audience will be familiar with. The beauty of Hadfield’s social media campaigning was that it rarely talked about the science of space. Mostly Hadfield was communicating about his personal experience. Ironically, choosing to talk about brushing your teeth over the scientific breakthroughs being made was what attracted so many people to him and to a field they would otherwise pay little attention to.

2. Encourage new ways of looking at things.

Sometimes successful communication simply lies in identifying and conveying a new perspective. On his first spacewalk, Hadfield clung white-knuckled to the ship. But once he remembered that it was, in fact, impossible for him to fall to Earth, because he, the spaceship, and Earth were all traveling together in the same direction around the sun, he let go. He describes this as the best moment of that first spacewalk, that shift in perspective. The goal of his communications with Earth via social media revolved around that principle: shifting people’s perspectives. When asked if he would go on a one-way trip to Mars, he offers a perspective on the concept that really altered the way I thought about the question. His answer? It would depend on the people he’s traveling with. He expands on this by saying that we’re all on a one-way journey of sorts in life, it’s just a question of who you choose to include in your crew. Such shifts in perspective are often the catalysts that spark insight, inspiration and action in others.

3. Know who your audience is, where they are, and how they consume content.

Hadfield’s goal was to inspire a new generation with the prospects of space travel. So knowing where to find them was the first step. In addition to platforms like Twitter and Facebook, Hadfield had a presence on Tumblr and Reddit, which skew towards a younger demographic. He kept his content short, letting photos and videos speak for themselves, and he didn’t overcomplicate the message. It was enough to say, with every photo and every tweet, the same simple thing: space travel is awesome. He was emotional and colorful in his descriptions, too. He treated the moments he shared as artistic snapshots. When we’ve been working in digital storytelling and social media for a while, it can be easy to forget the importance of the most basic best practices and get lost in searching for a more complex magic bullet. Hadfield is an astronaut, not a digital marketer, but by thinking very straightforwardly about his audience, his platforms and keeping his message simple and authentic, he succeeded.

Despite how advanced Hadfield’s scientific knowledge and experience is, his values are rooted in the importance of connecting with other people. Forbes quoted Hadfield from a press conference: “What we’re doing on Space Station is fundamentally fascinating…with these new technologies and these communications [photo/video and social media platforms], we can directly give people the human side of that.” As Hadfield spun his guitar in zero gravity, a beautiful connection between art, science, emotion, and humanity rang true for millions of people on Earth.

*This article originally appeared in Skyword, March 2017


Chris Hadfield is an astronaut and speaker on effective leadership. To read more of his posts, visit his page on Speakers' Spotlight. To have Chris speak at your next function, email Speakers' Spotlight at info@speakers.ca. 

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