Jobs and Skills

4 key ways leaders can inspire and connect, according to Europe's space chief

Clear communication is key to being understood. Image: Pexels/Chevanon Photography

Charlotte Edmond
Senior Writer, Forum Agenda
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  • Josef Aschbacher, Director General for the European Space Agency, needs to be able to inspire and connect with people as part of his job.
  • The communication tools he uses apply to leaders in other fields, too.
  • Avoiding jargon, and speaking for support, to build trust and to inspire are how you get your message across and get buy-in, Aschbacher says.

“If I cannot inspire a little girl or a little boy, then I'm not doing a good job,” says Josef Aschbacher.

As Director General for the European Space Agency (ESA), his job requires him to be able to win hearts and minds round to expensive visionary innovations, as well as inspire future generations.

Whether he is speaking to policymakers or to children, he learnt that getting buy-in for these major projects requires clear, jargon-free communication. And despite working in a highly technical field, he needs to be able to condense and simplify complex ideas for a non-scientific audience.

The communication tools he uses aren’t limited to space though, and could apply just as readily to any change management project, for example. Here are his four tips for leadership communication.

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1. Speak without jargon

Clear communication is key to being understood. When you are working with technical experts it can be easy to fall back on the language you are surrounded by daily. But clear communication relies on tailoring your language to the audience.

"Sometimes I put my grandmother, or my parents, or somebody in front of me visually,” Aschbacher says. “And if I'm not capable of explaining to them what I'm doing, why this is important, and why they should say yes … then I think I fail."

Statistic showing the share of employees that find certain office jargon phrases annoying.
Jargon overcomplicates what you are trying to say and muddies communication. Image: Statista

2. Speak for support

Clear communication can earn buy-in from the public, and this in turn can lead to buy-in from politicians and other decision-makers.

"Sometimes we, especially in the space community, are considered a bit alien because we are very exotic what we do,” Aschbacher says. “But we have to make it understandable for everyone … that's extremely important because the decisions of politicians are based on what they hear from the general public."

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3. Speak to build trust

In the space industry, it often takes many years before initiatives yield results or innovations are built. This means that people’s faith in the outcome is key.

"People need to trust you. People need to believe in what you say is actually what you mean,” Aschbacher says. "People need to like the way you communicate; they need to get on board, on your message. [You need to] live what you say and walk the talk."

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4. Speak to inspire

Your communication needs to help people to see the potential – and get excited about it. For something like the space programme, you are helping them imagine a world that is literally alien and out of their sight.

“When you talk space, you talk astronauts, you talk exploring the moon, the Space Station or Mars. And that's of course something that is also exciting – and is the inspiration to really explore new dimensions.”

This is an edited version of a conversation had with Aschbacher as part of the World Economic Forum’s Meet the Leader podcast series. You can listen to the interview in full here.

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