An academic doctorate hardly prepares one to pen good popular writing, since communication skills are not exactly emphasized in most university graduate departments. In fact, clear communication is often discouraged in academia, as both I and my Phaeton colleagues have found. However, as I was wrapping up my Ph.D. and looking ahead to my career future, I knew I wanted to be able to communicate well, and not only to other academics--I wanted to be able to share all that I valued in archaeology with a broader audience.
In order to learn popular communication, after I won my Ph.D. I took the unusual step (for a newly-minted archaeologist) of accepting a position in marketing and communications at George Lucas' Skywalker Ranch. Lucasfilm's extraordinary worldwide success with its Star Wars franchise has demonstrated that they are masters of the art of audience engagement. What were the principles behind their success? What were the techniques and traditions of this art? In working with Lucasfilm, I would have the opportunity to learn popular communication from the best people in the business.
While working at Skywalker Ranch I wrote a series of Star Wars books in addition to my wide-ranging marketing duties. In these books I approached the fantasy world of Star Warsas if it were real, considering it "a culture from another time and place to explore." I fleshed out the back-stories and histories of the characters and situations, drawing upon my knowledge of the real world of history and archaeology for inspiration, just as George had always done. Echoing reality lends depth and structure to fantasy, and often makes it more dramatic and effective.
I wrote the Star Wars books to test myself, to see whether I was learning the skills I sought. With each book I gained experience and refined my understanding of the principles of popular communication, and I watched the books climb higher and higher in popularity. Finally, one of my books--a Star Wars "Visual Dictionary"--hit #1 on the New York Times best-seller list. With that milestone, I knew I had accomplished what I set out to do at Skywalker Ranch, and the time had come for me to leave.
My new objective was to turn the skills that Lucasfilm had taught me toward the writing and communication of science and history, which is what I have focused on since leaving the Ranch and founding Phaeton Group. I still write for Lucasfilm now and then--the occasional book, magazine article, or curatorial notes for archival exhibits of movie props. But most of my time is spent working with Phaeton, far from the world of laser swords and space heroics.
I have to say, it was fun while it lasted. According to Amazon.com, my peculiar approach made me a "fan favorite," and I certainly appreciated the enthusiastic support of my readers. The glitzy world of best-sellers can furnish experiences uncommon for archaeologists--like signing autographs as fast as you can for people in an endless line leading far out of sight. I don't imagine I will ever spend three straight hours autographing any of my space history books. But that's all right. I enjoyed my sojourn in the world of Star Wars, and today I greatly value the skills that Lucasfilm taught me. While I would not exactly claim that Star Wars should be a vital component of any archaeologist's career, I would definitely say that communication skills have proven to be a significant asset in every part of my work. My excursion into Star Wars has proven time well spent.