In the new critically-acclaimed documentary Apollo 11, created from newly released (and enhanced) 70mm film from NASA archives, we see split screens showing hundreds of scientists, technicians and mathematicians working behind the scene as the astronauts hurdled through space. 

Several times during the documentary we hear people say that the goal of the Apollo program was to fulfill John F. Kennedy's pledge to send Americans to the moon's surface and return them safely to earth. The fact that they repeated the message almost word-for-word reflects the power of Kennedy's persuasive message.

Now we know how he did it. 

Kennedy's 4-Part Persuasion Formula

For my book, Five Stars, I interviewed a Wharton professor who had analyzed 18,000 pages of NASA documents to understand just how Kennedy inspired a nation to do what many thought was impossible at the time.

Andrew Carton identified four communication tactics. His research explains why everyone involved in the moon landing was on the same page--and how they stayed on that page from 1961 to July 20, 1969, the day Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first people to step foot on the moon (In the movie, we appreciate the work of the third astronaut, Michael Collins, without whom the astronauts would never have been able to fulfill the pledge to return home safely).

1. Focus on one goal.

When NASA was established in 1958 it had several objectives. Beginning in 1961, Kennedy's message focused on one clear objective which he repeated consistently: Send humans to the moon and return them safely to Earth. It's easier to rally a team around one common goal than to divide their attention.

2. Make the goal concrete.

In September, 1962, Kennedy gave his now famous "Moon Speech" at Rice University. He expressed the mission in such concrete terms, it made people feel as though it had already been accomplished--even though the rocket technology and the computational models were far from certain. Pay particular attention to how specific Kennedy made the event feel real seven years before it occured.

We shall send to the moon, 240,000 miles away from the control station in Houston, a giant rocket more than 300 feet tall, the length of this football field, made of new metal alloys, some of which have not yet been invented, capable of standing heat and stresses several times more than have ever been experienced...on an untried mission, to an unknown celestial body, and then return it safely to earth, reentering the atmosphere at speeds of over 25,000 miles per hour, causing heat about half that of the temperature of the sun.

And then, Kennedy gave the goal a concrete deadline. "We will do all this, and do it right, and do it first before this decade is out."

Concrete messages make a future event feel real. 

3. Communicate milestones.

Kennedy celebrated milestones along the way. The Mercury program would send astronauts into orbit, Gemini would teach NASA about connecting spacecrafts and Apollo would ultimately put a man on the moon. A goal that's too distant or too big has to be broken up into smaller accomplisments to keep morale high.

4. Use metaphors and analogies.

Regular readers of my articles know that I'm a strong proponent of using metaphors to inspire listeners. It's exactly what Kennedy did. He compared the moon landing to scaling Mt. Everest. Stepping foot on rocky soil wasn't the ultimate goal. Instead, space is where we would find "new hopes for knowledge and peace." It would be "the greatest adventure" that humans had ever attempted--and we'd do it as a nation, coming in peace on behalf of the world. 

Who wouldn't want to be a part of that vision?

Years ago I had the opportunity to be invited to a small, private dinner with Neil Armstrong. He regaled us with stories from the mission and also reminded us that it took 400,000 people to get him there. Keeping hundreds of thousands of people motivated to reach a common goal is one of the great achievements of human communication, but the elements that made it happen can be used to inspire any team to g

Published on: Mar 7, 2019
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