Pitch your startup vision like Elon Musk

Elon Musk’s vision for Tesla has always been bold, with magnificent progress occasionally mired by his offbeat and idiosyncratic communications on Twitter, where he’s far from delivering a verdict of mastery – the Twitter poll over the weekend on whether he should sell some shares, just the latest example.

Investors sometimes harrumph over his briefing style, analysts complain about scant details. It seems that the man who is often said to be the inspiration for Tony Stark, the brash tycoon in the Iron Man movies, loses attention for detail whilst retaining the knack for inspiring his audience. Musk’s ambitions are always moonshots.

In one respect however, namely the clarity of the vision and strategy itself, Musk retains his power to impress, giving a masterclass in jargon-free business communication. For me, the best example was an investor talk he gave recently in Nevada, at the site of the world’s largest industrial building, the Tesla ‘gigafactory’. This giant $5bn site churns out batteries to power many of the company’s products, helping to fuel its broader expansion.

Here Musk reiterated his grandiose growth strategy with a masterclass in communication. Start with length. His plan was brief: a crisp 1,500 words or so, covering about two sides of A4. He uses short words and sentences with little in the way of jargon, meaning just about anyone who read it would be able to understand what it said. There is no PowerPoint, no fancy diagrams, and no accompanying pictures of smiling children. No next slide please. Instead, he lays out what he plans to do: make cheaper cars and trucks under the Tesla brand, and press on with plans to make cars that drive themselves.

Not everything in his plans is perfect, sometimes it’s more than a little hubristic. Jargon is not entirely absent: at one-point last week Musk talked about highly differentiated solar, a concept that left me scratching my head. Perhaps his biggest mistake has been talking up the safety of his self-driving cars without mentioning directly why people were worried about this issue – the car’s autopilot system. Even so, the clear, concise style Musk deploys remains both unusual and welcome, not least for the way it makes Tesla’s plans comprehensible. Yet few business leaders copy it, many persist in pretending that their businesses are more complex than they really are.

The tech sector is among the worst offenders for speaking in a linguistic code of its own creation. Yet every now and then people like Steve Jobs or Musk come along, who seem to have the self-confidence to cut out much of the blah. Plain English alone is not going help Musk make good on his vision for electric cars and sustainable energy, but it can’t hurt.

Tesla’s market value sits at $1 trillion, more than the combined market value of the next nine largest automobile manufacturers, sitting alongside other trillion-dollar companies such as  Apple, Alphabet, Amazon, and Microsoft. Tesla has been the world’s most valuable carmaker for some time, but Ford and GM make more cars – Tesla makes less than 1% of global car sales, it produced 500,000 cars in 2020 compared to 9.3 million from Volkswagen, and Toyota’s 7.2 million. Musk has set an annual sales growth target of 50% and hopes to reach 20 million vehicles a year.

Musk is being rewarded for anticipating the future direction of the industry, and last year Tesla upped its game and became profitable for the first time, yet many love to dunk on Musk. He’s made spaceships and flamethrowers and electric cars, all from a brain that appears to have been syphoned out of an adolescent boy, but he’s a great communicator of his vision. The following is an example of how Musk breaks down big ideas so that you can picture them: 

Now how are we going to make these cars? Good question. We need to achieve high volume production. So this is in two parts. First there is the vehicle factory. Our Fremont factory in the past has reached almost 500,000 per year, so we’re confident that Tesla can achieve that number in terms of vehicle production. I think that’s going to be … I wouldn’t say straightforward, but very doable. And what about batteries?

We would basically need to absorb the world’s entire lithium battery production. That’s why we built the Gigafactory. This is a vital element. To give you a sense of scale, the Gigafactory will have the largest footprint of any building of any kind.  Volumetrically it will only be second to the Boeing factory in Washington, so this is really an enormous facility. In fact, it will produce more lithium batteries than all other lithium factories combined. That’s one location.

When you listen to Musk speak publicly, you get the impression he would speak the same way over coffee sat with you. He doesn’t sound overly formal or rehearsed, and you sense that his words match his beliefs and actions. He’s like Steve Jobs – the following quote from the iPhone unveiling demonstrates Jobs’ authentic tone of voice:

But smartphones are definitely a little smarter, but they actually are harder to use. They’re really complicated. Just for the basic stuff people have a hard time figuring out how to use them. Well, we don’t want to do either one of these things. What we want to do is make a leapfrog product that is way smarter than any mobile device has ever been, and super-easy to use. This is what iPhone is. OK?

If you were sat in that audience, it’s easy to imagine he’s having a one-on-one conversation with you. Like Musk, he had a knack for making his audience feel the same way.

So, what can we learn from Musk’s masterclass and how to connect with an audience? Let’s reflect and put it into context for startup fundraising pitches to investors.

Grab the attention from the outset The best startup founders use the first five minutes of a pitch to earn the investor’s attention for the next fifteen, which in turn will interest the investor enough to listen for another thirty.  Think of it as a James Bond movie – we all love the opening sequence, before the titles come on. There’s action, and unbelievable stunts. These first five minutes bring home why you love Bond, and that keeps you going through the next two hours.

Takeaway: Don’t let the data kill the room from the outset, take the lead and get attention immediately with your presence, energy, gravitas and conviction, create a personal connection.

Turn your pitch into a story Storytelling is proven to capture listener’s attention. Spreadsheets and graphs do not excite, instead present the information by way of narrative. Investors are quickly bored with numbers, it makes pitch content all the same, they can get that information after the presentation. What you can convey in the moment is your story and pathos. That’s why it’s important to step away from the data and focus on the bigger picture you’re trying to tell. Good stories are easy to understand, instil emotion. Think about your journey. What problems inspired you in the first place? What successes and setbacks have defined or changed your venture? Most importantly: where are you heading now?

Takeaway: Make it personal, share things in your pitch to pique your investor’s interest and keep them engaged.

Reduce the clutter and noise Great presenters – like Musk – use fewer slides and words. Great writers and speakers are succinct – some of the most memorable speeches and documents in history are among the shortest.: the Gettysburg Address is 272 words, and John F. Kennedy’s inauguration speech was under fifteen minutes. Bullet points are the least effective way to get your point across. People read the slides, they don’t listen to you. Jobs was one of the most extraordinary presenters, he rarely showed slides with text and bullets, he used photos and text instead.

Takeaway: Think back to the Government’s daily Covid presentations; we were all lost with the repetition of graphs and data battering our sensibilities. Avoid this ‘chart junk’ approach, complement text and data on slides with photos and videos.

It’s not what, but how you say it Speakers who vary the pace, pitch, and volume of their voices are more effective persuaders, modulating their voice, and by doing so, appear to be more confident. For example, if you raise your voice when emphasising a key message, or pause after delivering an important point, your presentation will be more persuasive, and impactful. Albert Mehrabian’s famous communication model should be born in mind here too, his rule states that 7% of meaning is communicated through spoken word, 38% through tone of voice, and 55% through body language

Takeaway: Don’t underestimate the impact of tone of voice to make a positive impression on your audience, but it’s also the non-verbal aspects of communication that are important too, as identified by Mehrabian. Musk has huge personal presence, make sure people know you are in the room, and be the focus of attention.

Create ‘wow’ moments People don’t remember every word of a presentation, they remember moments, as Bill Gates exemplified back in his famous TED talk. Giving a presentation on The Gates Foundation’s efforts to reduce the spread of malaria, Gates stated Now, malaria is, of course, transmitted by mosquitos. I brought some here just so you could experience this. And with that, he opened the lid from a small jar containing non-infected mosquitoes. We’ll let those roam around the auditorium a little.

This moment captured his audience, they’d been expecting a standard PowerPoint presentation with graphs and data. But what they got instead was a visceral introduction to the subject, an immersive experience that played on their emotions.

Takeaway: Give your audience something extra. Musk’s delivery is frequently exciting and bold, full of conviction and memorable moments of inspiration.

Go Beyond ‘Next Slide Please’ PowerPoints are linear, and broadcast from one side of the table. They have a tendency to discourage interactivity and obfuscate rather than clarify. The best presenters tend to show rather than tell. By helping listeners identify with the ideas you’ve shared, they create a bond with them. Using too many slides, you risk the audience accidentally or intentionally becoming suffocated by data and ‘chart junk’.

Takeaway: Musk’s presentations are complex, but the content is delivered by ‘informing’ rather than ‘telling’. He sits on the audience’s side of the table as a listener, thinking about what reaction he wants to evoke.

It’s all about influence Pitching to investors, your experience and mastery of facts are essential and must be demonstrated quickly. Yet, and I can say from personal experience, data doesn’t necessarily win the day.  The reason is often that those pitching have the mastery of facts, but it is just the price of entry – everyone can replay facts. The difference between pitch winners and losers is the chemistry with your audience, your ability to listen, and create an impact. It is knowing how to showcase your expertise to create influence.

Takeaway: The critical thing is connecting your conversation in a confident and assured manner. People listen when they’re engaged. It’s about the nuts and bolts of your delivery, making your content credible and informative, and not being the smartest person in the room.

Musk has not lost his penchant for hype, telling investors earlier this month that Tesla can keep growing production by at least 50% a year ‘for quite a while’. He also thinks its Model Y SUV will be the world’s best-selling vehicle by 2023. Musk has a history of missing targets, but recent performance suggests his latest ones deserve to be taken more seriously A strong balance sheet and a stubbornly racy multiple of 100 times earnings affords Tesla the ability to recharge its expansion efforts. Musk’s hyperbole deserves some discounting, but there’s now some convergence with reality.

The anatomy of making yourself as memorable as Musk in an investor pitch is to help Investors answer their simple question: Make me believe by showing me you know what you’re talking about. Give yourself the best opportunity by considering the above approach – and add a bit of Musk’s swagger.

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