On May 25, 1961, President Kennedy spoke to Congress:

MoonI believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to Earth. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important in the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish.

In those few words, the President defined a classic quest, one that would prove irresistible to a nation threatened by the Cold War and recent Soviet success in space.  His speech demonstrates the power of a good story to motivate people to action.  Note that the three key elements of a quest are present:  the hero (this nation); the goal (the moon and back safely); and the hardships along the way (“none will be so difficult or expensive….”).

By invoking a quest, Kennedy immediately let us know what was in store – we’d have great difficulties, but the goal would make it all worthwhile because of its audacity and the sheer spectacular nature of the journey.  And that was enough.

Eight years later, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon, on July 20, 1969.  That’s the power of a quest story – and of course the many technological achievements that made it possible.  According to David Meerman Scott and Richard Jurek, some 400,000 people and many billions of dollars were involved in the journey to get the two astronauts there.

In their new book, Marketing the Moon:  The Selling of the Apollo Lunar Program, Scott and Jurek describe the marketing and PR – the storytelling – that went on behind the scenes to keep America on task for those eight years.  The effort is nearly as remarkable as the moon landing itself.

They begin with Jules Verne and the early imaginings of what the journey – and the Moon – would be like.  From there, we proceed to the Cold War and the perceived threat of the Soviet conquest of space, and Kennedy’s commitment to the Moon landing.

Scott and Jurek describe the extraordinary PR efforts that kept the public breathlessly attached to the story – until we got to the Moon.  After that, as both of these space geeks note with sorrow, public interest waned, funding dried up, and we haven’t done anything remotely comparable since.

Once again, the power of a quest story to shape people’s understanding of what was going on shows through.  Once you achieve the goal in a quest, you’re done.  The only thing left to do is have a celebration.  You’ve prepared yourself to get to that goal – and no further.  Kennedy’s quest got us to the Moon.  But there the story ended.  No president or politician has been able to articulate a story strong enough to grab the public imagination like that one in the years that have followed, and our space program has languished ever since.

The book is a fascinating read, it’s beautifully illustrated, and the story they tell illustrates the power of storytelling to motivate people to action.  What story will push us into space again?  Who will tell it?  Will the private space companies find a way to capture our imaginations?

If we’re ever going to conquer space, we need a story to get us there.

(Full disclosure:  David Meerman Scott is a good friend and client and I helped him with a speech related to this book.)

(image: wikimedia.org)


  1. Whenever I think about storytelling, I refer to Chip and Dan Heath’s framework for “sticky ideas”. They use the acronym success: simple, unprecedented, credible, concrete, emotional, stories. They say the best example of the framework is the JFK’s speech which you refer in your post as it integrates all of these elements of the acronym. It would indeed be wise for all communicators to do a deep dive into the PR and marketing of Kennedy’s storytelling around this aspiration. I am looking forward to reading David Meerman Scott’s book for further inspiration.

    1. Thanks, Kevin, for the comment and the reminder that Chip and Dan — as usual — have something smart to say about the topic!

  2. Nick,

    Kennedy’s speech was the catalyst of the Apollo lunar program. I’ve known about the speech for years and we, of course, wrote about it in our book Marketing the Moon. But until this post, I hadn’t considered that it was a quest speech! Thanks so much for this post. Now I have language to articulate the storytelling aspects when I have an opportunity to speak about Apollo.


    1. Thanks, David — the quest story helps explain, in my mind, why public interest waned so immediately after reaching the Moon — the quest was over. Now, who’s going to start us on a new story to reach the stars?

  3. Your book Working the Room was among the first I bought when I decided to improve my presentation skills years ago. I enjoy your blog, and also have all three of the Heather brothers’ books. All this to say “Amen” to David’s and Kevin’s comments, and this blog.

    We sorely need a vision that can unite people in a quest beyond our little planet and it’s quarrelsome inhabitants.

  4. Nick,
    Thanks for the wonderful review and perspective on the quest speech — and your analysis certainly brings home Capt. Eugene Cernan’s quote in our last chapter, “Where to now, Columbus?” Thanks again for a great write up!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.