Passing the Uncle Larry Test

Posted 09.10.2008

Heidi HammelThe other day, The New York Times ran a short interview with planetary astronomer Heidi Hammel (right).  Among her professional duties is serving as NASA’s worldwide TV spokesperson for all things related to the Hubble Space Telescope.  How’s that for a communications challenge?  Her gift is to make the complex simple.

How did she learn to do this?  Here’s what she says:

My Uncle Larry was my template. When I was a student, I’d come home on Thanksgiving weekends, and during breaks in his football game he’d go, “O.K., Heidi, whatcha workin’ on?” I knew I had 30 seconds to tell this guy who worked in a Mack truck factory what I did. He just wanted the big picture. I’d quickly say, “I’m using big telescopes to try to find planets and figure out what they’re made of.” Every scientist should be able to do that.

Not just scientists.  Anyone who has ever briefed senior management knows that you usually have only a few minutes to grab the audience and make your primary points.  The next time you’re crafting a message, try pretending that you’re explaining it to Uncle Larry.  If you can boil it down to a one sentence explanation, you’ll know you’re there.