Jessica Fox is an author, producer and director. Her work includes projects for The Honolulu Theatre for Youth, V&A Museum, Wigtown Book Festival, NASA, The Dresden Doll and her short films featured at international film festivals. Her articles have been featured in The Guardian, HelloGiggles and The Independent. Fox’s first book Three Things You Need to Know About Rockets was Waterstone’s Book of the Month and named top summer reads by Oprah Magazine. Fox currently has two TV projects in development with Annapurna Productions and Michael Flaherty (Walden Media), and consults for tech companies and science organisations. She was the resident storyteller at NASA and is currently the artist-in-residence at the Synthetic Biology Lab at Edinburgh University. www.jessicafox.info
1. Can you explain how NASA used storytelling, and why?
Stories are essential; not only are they entertaining and offer opportunities for cathartic release, but are also one of the most ancient forms of information sharing. They tell us about the world, lessons, relationships; they frame the past, make sense of our present and offer visions of the future. At NASA they knew that storytelling is the key to good information sharing and knowledge management practices. Especially because NASA has the extra challenge of being a distributed company with 10 campuses across the US that have to coordinate single missions together. Distributed companies are becoming more popular and knowledge management strategies that involve storytelling the norm.
However, when I was hired at NASA as their storyteller, they were at the forefront of this wave and were highly innovative – as with everything they do – in including me, an artist, on their team. They saw that for effective communication to happen, which is the key to mission success, finding ways to encourage a storytelling culture within NASA was essential.
2. What does NASA get out of storytelling?
At NASA, like any workplace, there are often competing factors putting pressure on an enterprise. There are time constraints, financial limitations, risk factors, regulatory laws and people. Working with people is a flawed process. Everyone is coming with their own speciality and interest – at NASA you have engineers, chemists, physicists, administrators, program managers – and that’s just their role at work. People come with their own baggage from home into work; there are power relationships at play, and in the midst of all this a shared goal must be achieved of finishing a project or executing a mission. NASA gets passed these potentials points of weakness through storytelling and communication. NASA is excellent at creating a team spirit through stories and sayings, learning from the past through project managers telling stories to their team, and empowering people, no matter where they are in the mission hierarchy, to speak if they see something wrong. This was not an innate practice at NASA. These lessons have been hard won.
3. Storytelling has been linked to the stars since the beginning of time. How does that link with NASA’s storytelling culture?
Stories have always come from just beyond our visible horizon. In hunter / gatherer societies you see a lot of celestial stories about horizons and the sun and moon. Much later, when civilizations walked across those horizons, they were stories about above and below. Now, our final frontier is space.
I remember being in California, working at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and walking by a group of protestors on my way to work. There were kids in the crowds, parents, young people. I asked a colleague and was told those protestors were called ‘facers’ and that they turned up monthly. Why? They believe there is a face on Mars and that NASA is somehow hiding the truth about it. My colleague showed me the image on his computer. It did, in fact, look like a face. Not human, more like an Ancient Egyptian animal god. When I admitted that it did look man-made, my colleague hit a key and showed me the same snapshot taken minutes before. The shadows moved and the face no longer appeared. It looked more like a mountain range. He hit another key and showed it minutes later. Again, the shadowed stretched across in such a way where there was no face, no man-made structure. Just dirt and hills.
Because all the images NASA takes are in the public domain, someone knowingly chose the one image that looked like a face, spread it across the internet and it caught on like wildfire. Not one of the protestors had done their own research, for if they did they could certainly find the face along with all the other images where the face reveals itself to be just geology. The protestors kept coming and NASA scientists were baffled by why, with all the amazing things to discover, people get so attached to conspiracy theories. I think it has to do with our need for an updated mythology that incorporates the science-knowledge of our time. We need to feel that others have gone before us. Being alone in the universe studying big boulders in space is not a compelling or emotionally satisfying narrative. However I do not think it’s NASA’s job to provide us with meaningful myths. I would love to see more storytellers and artists and writers be science literate and use their own creative powers to help us create meaning in the scientific work.
4. How have you found that storytelling helps people solve problems?
I think storytelling at best can provide new perspectives and develop empathy, which will help us solve problems.
5. Can you share an example of how storytelling helped people see things in a new way?
I’m always really interested in stories that get lost in families. So often stories explain so much about why so-and-so behaves in a certain way, that when those stories get lost – or consciously buried – all we’re left with is just the effect of the actions, like being in a lake getting hit with the waves and wake of a boat, without a boat being there. It leaves us confused. Often we’ll interpret someone’s actions wrongly and take it personally when we don’t understand the true source.
For example, in my family, my sister had won a new kitchen. Not only that, it was one of those DIY TV shows where they show up, knock down your old kitchen, and before your husband gets back home, build you a new one. My sister was telling my grandmother about it and suddenly my grandmother said, ‘I won something once!’
A long buried story came to light of her growing up in rural Poland right before the War. They were very poor and a peddler had come through selling tickets for the Irish Hospital Sweepstakes. Her mother, acting out of character, used some of the grocery money to buy one. And they won. The equivalent of a million dollars today. They bought a mill, a nicer house, my grandmother and her sister went to a posher school but the Russians invaded and put them on trail for being too bourgeois. They had to hide in a neighbour’s house while the Russians searched for them. Then, later, the Nazis came. However I never understood why they didn’t flee – they had passports to Egypt, they knew the government was turning and yet they stayed. It was because they had won the lottery. But we never knew that until my sister got on to a kitchen TV show.
This is a small example, but stories help us see people and things and situations in a new way all the time. My favorite quote by Antonia Porchia, an Argentinian poet, is, ‘I know what I have given you, I don’t know what you have received.’
Stories help bridge that gap and get us get on the same page. Literally.