Five Space Age Lessons in Remote Communication
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2015 saw the UK release of Ridley Scott's 'The Martian', a blockbuster movie starring Matt Damon as Mark Watney, an astronaut left for dead on Mars. The film has received glowing reviews, many emphasising its overall theme of man outwitting the Universe. Forbes even described it as a 'love letter' to scientific discovery and resilient, smart problem solving.
What most of these reviews don't dwell on is that NASA's attempt to rescue Watney doesn't rely on engineering ingenuity alone; effective communication is also key. We can all learn lessons from the challenges Watney and NASA experience when attempting to communicate remotely across tens of millions of kilometres. Here's the five key points I took away from the film:
1. Set up a communication protocol
When Watney first finds himself marooned on the red planet, he has no way of communicating with anyone else. However, he soon unearths (or should that be unmars?) a forgotten space probe that enables him to connect with NASA, albeit through a convoluted process. The limitations of the technology mean NASA must spell out any messages letter by letter, remotely pointing the probe's camera to one of just 12 specified locations in turn. Watney obviously needs to be present (outside the safety of his pressurised living quarters) when these camera rotations take place. To reply, he has a small supply of cards, on which he can scrawl a couple of sentences (though he needs to complete the writing while inside his living quarters). He then posts these on boards, which he plants in the ground in front of the camera. To top it all, communications take 24 minutes between sending and receiving (12 minutes to travel each way).
How does Watney tackle this? He establishes a communication protocol. In the Andy Weir book on which the film is based his first message tells NASA how he intends to communicate (outlining where they should point the probe's camera), what time he'll be watching (and clarifying whose 'time' he is referring to), how long they should wait for a reply and how often to repeat the process. His protocol message is succinctly written, while also explaining why he's giving certain instructions:
Will watch camera starting 11:00 my time. When message done, return to this position. Wait 20 minutes after completion to take picture (so I can write and post reply). Repeat process at top of every hour.
Take time to share clear instructions like this at the start of a project and both you and your colleagues will make the most of time-consuming (and time-delayed) communication methods. Agreed protocols relating to preferred communication methods, people's availability and expected response times all help when communicating across time zones.
2. Allow time for your message to be noted and understood
The convoluted probe-camera communication process involves a stage where Watney must decode the camera movements by consulting a cheat sheet. He then scrapes the letter into the Martian dust so he doesn't forget it, before looking up again. In the book, Watney laments that he sometimes misses observing the next camera movement, thereby losing a letter from the message.
If you're communicating in any scenario where you cannot see the person receiving your message, be sure to pause after sharing any important information. They will need time to register what has been shared, and make any notes, before they refocus their mind on to your next statement.
3. Use phone or Skype for sensitive matters
Luckily, NASA works out a way to improve communications, enabling Watney to send typed messages to Mission Control and vice versa. This speeds up communication and means both parties can send longer messages, but it's not without its own problems.
When NASA shares a particularly risky detail of the rescue plan with Watney, the astronaut types back, "Are you kidding me?" Back on Earth, we watch the Director of the Mars Mission saying the phrase out loud in different ways; he's trying to work out if Watney means it in an over-excited "that's cool" way, or a horrified "that's suicidal" way. Without the intonation of Watney's voice, his typed words are open to multiple interpretations.
Avoid discussing sensitive issues by text-based communication methods. It's much better to use phone or Skype in these situations. Try not to send emotionally charged, humorous or sarcastic quips by text-based communication methods as well. And take time to reflect on the intended meaning of messages you receive, rather than jumping to the first conclusion that comes into your head.
4. Answer every question
When Watney asks a question that NASA doesn't want to answer, Mission Control doesn't reply. This makes Watney stressed. He worries that the communication system may not be working, and almost certainly worries that there's some bad news NASA doesn't want to share.
While you may not want to reveal something you think will cause problems, the result of staying silent can often be worse. Responding to queries quickly and openly is usually the best way to communicate in a crisis.
5. Keep some communications offline
Conversely, the film also features a scene where a crew of astronauts cut their communication channel with Mission Control while they make a critical decision. Shutting down communications is certainly not an advisable long-term strategy, but the crew quickly reconnect and announce a clear and firm way forward. In this instance, ceasing communication (momentarily) was a useful thing to do. It gave the crew time to think and didn't open their own internal deliberations to the world's scrutiny. It meant their decision was well-thought out and difficult to argue with, presenting an air of certainty that would have been lost if the decision-making process had been shared.
We sometimes feel so compelled to share that we over communicate, undermining our own authority. If you keep some discussions offline, so you can make decisions and consider how to communicate them behind closed doors, you'll be able to present a clear, confident image to others.
In 'The Martian', Mark Watney and NASA's smart communications have the ability to save lives. While good communication skills might not be quite so all-important to you, they can certainly save projects that rely on remote communication and help enhance your career in myriad ways.
You can find out more about remote communication, and develop your own communication skills, in Anna's course Communicating for Professional Success.
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