Elon Musk: Inside the presentation that sent us abuzz

Nancy Duarte

Written by

Nancy Duarte

Image source: ZACK/MCOM

Tesla CEO Elon Musk recently sent the technology world buzzing and not just with the announcement of the new Tesla battery, but with, wait for it … a presentation.

At least one experienced technology reporter hailed the 18-minute, matter-of-fact, TED-like monologue as “the best keynote I’ve ever seen,” above even Steve Jobs’ 2007 iPhone announcement. And while Musk’s delivery wasn’t perfect, he was himself, which when you’re in front of a crowd can be a challenge all on its own. And as someone who rarely delivers formal presentations, it’s obvious that he’s beginning to get more comfortable on stage.

But how did this particular announcement win over the hearts and minds of the citizens of Internet, a group that’s notorious for finding flaws in almost any well-intentioned talk? Good fundamentals, of course!


Right from the beginning, Musk laid the foundation for contrast. Within the first minute of the presentation, he introduced the “what is” — a world reliant on fossil fuels — through both photos of smokestacks and the, perhaps equally sickening, Keeling Curve, which plots the growth of the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

Musk then dexterously moved on to the “what could be”: A world powered by solar energy, or what he calls “this handy fusion reactor in the sky.” Throughout the beginning of his presentation, Musk continued this pattern, oscillating between different forms of “what is” to “what could be” before announcing what the crowd already knew was coming — mainly the details surrounding Tesla Energy. This pattern worked for him on two levels: 1) It logically defined a simple, step-by-step path for freeing ourselves from the tethers of fossil fuels. 2) It pushed and pulled the audience between two different camps by acknowledging possible objections to his views on solar power and today’s battery technology and diffusing them before they gain steam.


Along the way, Musk continued using contrast in his visuals. Pictures of pollution-producing smokestacks gave way to clear, beautiful clear skies.


Digestible numbers

Musk navigated another challenge exceedingly well during his talk — making sense of the numbers. It would have been easy for him to rattle off what may seem like astronomically high numbers of kilowatt hours unexplained, leaving the exceedingly well-informed impressed and normal people, like me, with the illusion of being impressed but not really understanding the concept.

Musk chose to put the numbers in context. Instead of talking about how much land would need to be covered in solar panels in square miles in order to power the United States, he translated that number into a tiny blue box that covered just a smidge of Texas and Oklahoma, while leaving the rest of the US blank. He then zoomed into a pixel-sized dot that represented the amount of batteries it would take to store enough power to provide consistent solar energy to the entire country.

When forecasting the potential of the Powerpack, the Powerwall’s bigger brother, which is intended to provide energy to larger facilities, he explained how 2 billion units could power the world — including heat and transportation. Then, as if reading the audience’s mind, he says 2 billion units sounds like a lot but is actually about the same number of automobiles on the road. Now, that number — in context — didn’t sound so crazy.

The S.T.A.R. Moment™

We all assumed that the S.T.A.R. (Something They’ll Always Remember) Moment would be when Musk unveiled the Powerwall — though the rotating center-screen panel paired with the slick projection mapping did not disappoint. But Musk took the surprise to another level when he revealed that the entire back wall was covered with Powerwalls, hiding in plain sight.

But the real STAR Moment happened when Musk cut to the live footage of the Powerpacks providing energy to the venue. At first, Musk played as if they were going to switch over to battery power right then and there. But as the cameraman zeroed in on the gauge, Musk revealed that, in fact, the entire event had been running on stored solar energy the whole time. Suddenly, his vision of the future wasn’t hypothetical. It was happening.

His tone

Finally, Musk stepped out of the typical keynote through the simple use of his tone. Full of ad-libs and back and forth with the audience, Musk’s talk came off as more accessible than so many of the suited CEOs we typically see striding across the stage. His casual attitude served to downplay the difficulty of what he proposed and made it less intimidating, which when you’re talking about reducing our dependence on fossil fuel is not an easy feat.

It was if he was saying, “Here’s this thing we’ve been working on. It’s not a huge deal. It’s reasonably priced. We’re going to make hundreds of millions of them. And it’ll probably save the planet. Thanks for coming.”

All in all, his style made for a breath of fresh (unpolluted) air.



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