Improving Your Presentations: Content and Delivery

Elon Musk is a massively successful business leader, a technological genius, and an undeniable visionary.

He is also not a very good public speaker.

You could say that shortcoming obviously hasn’t held him back, and I’d be hard-pressed to disagree with you. But last week, he delivered an address that could have and should have gotten the whole planet talking, sent his stock prices soaring, and inspired a nation of disgruntled Americans to look to the future with hope and wide eyes.

Instead, what he got was a blip of interest. Some nods, some thumbs up, and then people moved on.

And the reason for this, I would argue, has nothing to do with his message and everything to do with his delivery.

But I believe in Elon Musk. I’m a fanboy. And so, herewith, I offer my completely unsolicited advice to him — to improve his presentation skills, and to help him sell his vision to the world. Because his ideas deserve to make the whole world buzz.

In doing this, I’m going to offer my thoughts about how to improve his presentation piece by piece, starting from the very beginning. So watch just the first few seconds of his presentation here:

First impressions are so important. The crowd gives Elon an excited welcome, and he does nothing to acknowledge them. He looks tired — and I know he has every right to be — but the energy in the room starts to dissipate after he shows up because he seems to be ignoring the energy. He could leverage that energy not only by acknowledging it, but by enjoying it. He may not be able to see the audience at all, but he certainly can hear it, so he could smile and clap with them to acknowledge the enormity of this event before shaking hands with the person who introduced him. This would spin the energy back to the audience, and build on it.

Elon fidgets with his hands (checking his pockets for keys, maybe?), looks around, and crosses his arms, probably because he can’t figure out what to do with his hands. I suggest that he simply drop his arms to his sides, and look around the room for a few seconds, continuing to enjoy the audience and their cheers, and taking this moment to establish a connection with them. This pause communicates quiet confidence — which, by all accounts, Elon naturally has in spades (even though his body language here doesn’t show it) — and sends the signal that “I’m ready to start now.”

Then, when he starts speaking, he can “activate” his hands, allowing them to gesture naturally. Hands are natural communicators. We use them when we speak all the time. It’s only when we get in front of a room full of people that all of a sudden we question what to do with them.

Elon tells the room what he’s looking to do with this presentation: “What I really want to try to achieve here is to make Mars seem possible.” It’s great that he does this. Opening words should serve the purpose of telling the audience what to expect. But it could be done much more powerfully. Instead of a single statement, he could tell a story that everyone in the room, and likely everyone watching this video, can identify with. Something like this: “Since the dawn of man, human beings have looked up to the sky and dreamed of living on other planets. And Mars, our nearest neighbor, has always been fascinating to us. So close, and yet so far. We’ve dreamed of going there, we’ve read stories about it, we’ve gotten lost in comic books and TV shows and movies about it. Our whole lives it’s been a fantasy that we’ve never believed could happen in our lifetimes. Well, I’m here today to say it’s no longer fantasy, It’s reality. We can put human beings on Mars, and we can do it surprisingly soon.” Can you imagine the cheer that that intro would get?

Once past his too-brief intro, Elon proceeds into the meat of his presentation, and addresses the question “Why?” It’s a perfect place to start, but right out of the chute he stumbles with it. My guess is, he didn’t run through this content very much as he prepped for this presentation — probably because he’s too busy and didn’t have the time to invest. But oh, what a difference that practice would make. Instead of struggling to find the words — evidenced by the stammering and the too-sophisticated verbiage of “bifurcate” (instead of “split”) — he could have begun with an homage to his forbears, and then he could have added his own answer. “Some ask, why should we go to Mars? Sir Edmund Hillary would have said, ‘Because it’s there.’ John F. Kennedy would have said, ‘Because it’s hard.’ It’s a hard thing to do, and it’s important to do hard things. But as I see it, it’s an absolute imperative for our species’ survival. Right now, every human being in existence is on one planet. If any extinction-level event should happen to this planet, then we go away forever. Because all our eggs are in one basket. But every time we establish ourselves on another planet, we increase our chances not only of sustaining humanity, but of continuing to evolve humanity forever. That needs to begin now.” This would naturally inspire cheers, instead of forcing him to awkwardly ask for an audience response.

At this point, I think Elon makes a mistake. He introduces the question of “How?” — which really does feel like the next logical section of the presentation — and then he backtracks to more exploration of the “Why?” question: Why Mars, and not somewhere else in the solar system? I suspect he had multiple drafts of this presentation and he didn’t practice enough to remember this next section. Plus, he seems to be operating without a slide system which will show him what the next slide is. PowerPoint offers this functionality, which is extremely valuable, especially when you haven’t taken the time to prep enough to remember your content.

Regardless, though, the “Why Mars in particular” section feels extraneous to me, or at least, too long. I’ll include the clip here, but don’t feel the need to listen to the whole section.

Basically, he took 4 minutes to say, “Mars is easily the most logical place to go. The moon has no atmosphere, Venus is too deadly, and everywhere else is too far for now. Mars is right next door, and it’s remarkably similar to Earth.”

And from here, Elon proceeds to ask and answer the much more compelling — and much more complicated question of “How?” Again, it’s a perfect next step in the presentation, but Elon makes it all sound much more complex then it needs to be. Check out just the beginning of this section:

He takes a long time to say, “A tremendous amount of great work has been done to gather information about Mars. We now have the information we need to know to start building a city on the planet.”

And here I think we see the two most consistent problems showing up in this presentation. Elon is clearly struggling to remember his language, and his slides are as uninspired as they come: Tiny, white text on plain black backgrounds.

But the basic message is good. All he is saying here is, “Right now, the technology is not yet in place to put any human beings on Mars for any amount of money. The closest thing to this we’ve done is put a handful of people on the moon for billions of dollars per person. But what I see is possible is, we can get hundreds of people on Mars for about the median price of a U.S. house per person.” He just need to keep the message simple.

And similarly, his slides could have been improved with half as many words and twice the font size.

Here’s where we get to his thesis: “We’re going to have to improve the situation 5 million percent.” It’s a brilliantly simple way to communicate the challenge we’re facing. I wish he had simply followed up that statement by saying, “And here’s how we’re going to do it.” But instead he translated 5 million percent to “five and a half orders of magnitude,” which I suppose many of the technical people in the room understood, but not many other people do. And he probably did it to make it sound not as bad or as extreme as “5 million percent.” But he’s taking away a dramatic opportunity by doing this. He should want to get us to recognize, “Wow, this is a really big challenge” before communicating “I know how to do this,” so we can be that much more enthralled by the details of the how that he’s going to walk us through.

So that’s where I’ll wrap this up. Elon, if you’re reading this, I’ll review my main points here, because I know you don’t have time to read the whole thing, and I’ll add a few more suggestions inspired by your performance throughout the whole presentation:

  • Enjoy yourself, enjoy your audience, enjoy the moment. I know there is a lot going on in your world. But be here now, with your audience. If this is important enough for us to be here to listen, it’s just as important for you to be here to speak to us. Keep your mind in the game with us.
  • Design your slides to back you up, not to be the “show.” You’re the show. People came to listen to you, not read slides.
  • Trust your hands to communicate. They don’t need to go in your pockets, and you don’t need to cross them in front of your chest. Let them talk when they have something to say, and let them drop loosely to your sides when they don’t.
  • Don’t just own the moment, own the stage. You planted yourself in one place and stayed there for the whole presentation. There was no podium, which is a good thing. That means you’re not locked in one place. It’s always more interesting to watch someone move than to watch someone stay in place… unless that person is moving all the time. So, move, some of the time. Explore the space. Talk to different parts of the audience. Move forward, move backward. This will increase your natural expressivism and your comfort level.
  • Most importantly, prepare. Run through your content many, many times out loud. Do it so you know your content without having to look at your slides. Understand what your main points are in advance, and know how you’re going to make those points so that you’re not figuring it out in the moment with your audience.
  • Just as importantly, honor your message. This is world-changing stuff. You need your audience to get that, and the only way for that to happen is for you to hold onto that importance yourself, for you to keep your message as simple as possible, and for you to package your simple messages inside of stories that your audience feels.

What do you think? Join the conversation below!

11 Comments

  1. Sydney Paredes on October 4, 2016 at 5:57 pm

    Hi Pete, Thank you for this! Being able to apply the practices on an actual speech make it so accessible and fun and meaningful. I plan to pass this on to a couple of my clients who are working to create more powerful messages and deliver them in a way that connects and inspires. Bravo!

  2. Steve Zielinski on October 4, 2016 at 8:53 pm

    Brilliant! The “let’s look at the film” format of this post is powerful.

    • Pete Machalek on October 5, 2016 at 2:17 am

      Thanks, Steve! I’m glad you like it! I think we’ll be doing more “beat by beat” analyses like this in the future.

  3. Christopher Haydock on October 4, 2016 at 8:54 pm

    Thank you SagePresence for feedback on Elon Musk’s presentation to the International Astronautical Congress (IAC 2016) in Guadalajara. As he mentions during his presentation, it will take a huge public-private partnership to buy an Interplanetary Transport System (ITS) of a thousand spacecraft. And surely building this partnership depends every bit as much on delivering an inspiring message to voters and investors as on mastering the technical details of designing and testing a three million Newton thrust Raptor engine or a twelve meter diameter advanced carbon fiber fuel tank. We want to make humans a multiplanetary species, right? Yes, so whether you’re Elon Musk or like most of us doing a more worldly technology project, it’s well worth reading this blog post of Pete’s.

  4. Pete Machalek on October 5, 2016 at 2:18 am

    Thanks, Chris! I am such a fan of Elon. A brother of mine appreciates that he’s not a gifted speaker, because it makes him more relatable. I can understand that sentiment, but I would love for Elon to win over more non-spaceheads into his camp, and I think the way he’s going to do that is by speaking more compellingly.

  5. Nancy on October 5, 2016 at 3:11 am

    First of all, I completely appreciate your comments and format. You are always right on! Secondly, and sadly, he is ELON MUSK, a god in Silicon Valley, his world. I’ve worked fir Silicon Valley companies and given their “Silicon Valley laid back style” my guess is that he’s going with the valley flow by not being as prepared as he could be, but hey, he’s Elon, so he can ‘get away’ with the type of presentation he delivered and people will eat it up. The bar can be low; they live in a bubble….compared to the rest of the world. I agree with you, a missed opportunity.

    • Pete Machalek on October 5, 2016 at 3:19 am

      Good point, Nancy. Elon needs to remember that his presentations are getting captured on YouTube and are therefore watchable by everyone in the world. He’s potentially got a global audience, and he should design his presentations for the big picture.

  6. Patti Hessing on October 5, 2016 at 4:48 pm

    Great format for providing a constructive critique to learn from. Thanks for sharing these great lessons to improve our presentation delivery.

    • Pete Machalek on October 5, 2016 at 4:52 pm

      Thanks, Patti! I just wish we could easily change the images of each of the videos to give a visual clue that each one is unique.

  7. Richard Dodson on October 7, 2016 at 3:49 am

    Pete – terrific and useful analysis. I also love the format. And an added benefit – You’ve raised my confidence level – I now feel that at least I can do “something” better than Elon Musk. Look forward to your next post!

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