The movie, Alien, reminded us that in space no one can hear you scream. That's okay because NASA looks for astronauts who communicate effectively when things go wrong--and screaming isn't in the playbook.

I titled my new book on persuasion, Five Stars, as a metaphor for excellence based on conversations like the ones I had with NASA recruiters. In most fields today--even highly scientific ones--great communicators stand out. Leaders who excel in soft skills are more more likely to succeed in the hard sciences, build companies, sell products, attract customers and yes, become astronauts.

NASA recently introduced the first U.S. astronauts assigned to ride commercial spacecraft to the International Space Station. Their first assignment was to speak to the media and about their mission with Boeing and SpaceX. The astronauts are all smart, experienced, and eloquent. Yes, eloquent. You see, NASA doesn't just accept the best and the brightest. If you're not a great communicator, you won't make it through the grueling hiring process.

The job application that's 80 times harder than getting into Harvard

In 2017, NASA received a record number of 18,300 applications. Twelve applicants were selected, which makes the selection process about 80 times harder than getting into Harvard. An applicant can have advanced degrees (many have more than one), hours of experience as a test pilot, awards and certificates for their work, but if they can't collaborate with a small group of people stuck in a confined space 250 miles above Earth, they won't be hired.  

"When we look at astronaut selection and career trajectory, communication is critical," says Ann Roemer, a manager who oversees NASA's selection process. Roemer told me that astronauts are the public face of America's space program. While they train and work on Earth and in space, they will speak to a wide range of audiences--from students to scientists--stirring up excitement for space exploration and inspiring the next generation of explorers. On any given day in space, they'll communicate with Mission Control in Houston, Russian Cosmonauts, and via a video feed to a grade-school class. And when something goes wrong, their orders must be brief, clear, and understandable.

At NASA, leaders with soft skills stand out

Although astronaut applicants pride themselves on their experience, degrees, and fitness levels, it's not enough. Applications that are clear and well-written stand out. As the applications get whittled down, about 120 candidates are invited to Houston for a week of physicals, tests, and interviews. The top 1 percent will be called back for a second round of interviews. This is where the great get separated from the merely good.

During the week, selection committee members are constantly evaluating the candidates for their communication skills. A dinner with the other candidates isn't just a friendly meet and greet. Since the candidates come from diverse fields such as the military, academia, science, and medicine, NASA's hiring officials are looking for people who can communicate comfortably with people from different backgrounds.

The personal interviews are critical. Some of the questions might sound like 'softballs,' but are used to identify those candidates who are persuasive, engaging and inspiring. For example, the selection committee often asks, "Tell us about yourself, starting with high school." Average communicators will recite a long list of bullet points that recruiters can read for themselves on a resume. Great communicators will condense a lengthy career history into an engaging narrative that explains how their background is perfectly positioned to help NASA attain its goals.

The next time you're considered a candidate for a position at your company, take a cue from NASA. Invite them to dinner with the team to see how they get along. Better yet, expose them to a widely diverse group of people. If the job candidate is a leader who can explain your company's mission clearly and concisely, and is someone who can bring people together and collaborate well with a team, you might have found your next hire.

Published on: Aug 16, 2018
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.