visionaries

Tesla and Tips on Talking Like a Visionary

Elon Musk, the creator of Tesla and SpaceX, is an indisputable visionary for his innovations, like the Model X electric crossover, shown here in its 2012 unveiling. But Musk is an effective speaker because he brings the future to the present, breaks big topics into small ones and loves to talk about doors.  (Photo Credit – Paul Sancya, The AP) 

Elon Musk, the creator of Tesla and SpaceX, is an indisputable visionary for his innovations, like the Model X electric crossover, shown here in its 2012 unveiling. But Musk is an effective speaker because he brings the future to the present, breaks big topics into small ones and loves to talk about doors. (Photo Credit – Paul Sancya, The AP) 

Few people would dispute Elon Musk is a visionary. But when he talks about Tesla, “he always talks about what it’s like to drive in the car, what it’s like to look at the car and how the doors work.” His words paint pictures. His vision is cast in the present tense.

Elon Musk in a 2013 TED Talk on his innovative companies Tesla and SpaceX. 

Elon Musk in a 2013 TED Talk on his innovative companies Tesla and SpaceX. 

Noah Zandan, cofounder of Quantified Communications and a leading exponent of using big data and analytics to improve communications, says visionary leaders are surprisingly grounded in how they speak.

After assessing “hundreds of transcripts of visionary leaders,” Zandan came away with three surprising key takeaways:

  • “We thought visionaries would talk a lot about the future, but in fact they talked about the present.”
  • “We thought visionaries would really be complex thinkers, but in fact what they’re really concerned with is making things simple and breaking it down into steps.”
  • “We thought the visionaries would be really concerned with their own vision, but in fact they’re more concerned with getting their vision into the minds of their audience.”

In practical terms, Zandan says that means speech using a lot of “perceptual language, talking about look, touch and feel” that “brings the audience into the experience with you.”

Too much talk about the future, Zandan says, diminishes a speaker’s credibility with an audience. “People aren’t going to believe you as much.”

Noah Zandan speaking in February in Vancouver on how to speak like a visionary.

Noah Zandan speaking in February in Vancouver on how to speak like a visionary.

Great speakers have a knack or have learned how to draw an audience close to them when they begin and keep them absorbed during their talk. They rely heavily on real-time crowd feedback. Zandan’s techniques augment the native feel of speakers with hard data on audience reactions. That can be of great value to a speaker who has something important to say but isn’t as attuned to audience cues.

The takeaways Zandan extrapolates from his data and analytics are not surprising nor that much different from the advice of experienced speech coaches. The data reinforces the need to make speech tangible, accessible and understandable. Make a topic relatable and show the audience a path to your desired destination.

CFM offers customized media training workshops that put you in the hot seat and leave you better prepared to work with reporters. 

CFM offers customized media training workshops that put you in the hot seat and leave you better prepared to work with reporters. 

While data can improve the word choices speakers make, you can’t divorce speech from the speaker and how she or he looks, projects and sounds. Media training is a great example of showing speakers how they look, project and sound while giving an interview that is captured on video. Ticks, awkward gestures and contorted expressions suddenly stand out, almost drowning out the words spoken, when you see yourself on screen. That’s natural because what we see often sticks around in our brain longer than what we hear. And if what we see is discordant or uncoordinated with what we hear, we tend to dismiss what we hear.

Zandan admits there is more to great speech than data analysis. He underscores the importance of authenticity. “There is obviously authenticity to the way you deliver the message, and there are words that are considered authentic.…The data can lead you down a path of replication. We don’t want to do that because so much of what you communicate is your personality.”

Listening to Elon Musk fawn over Tesla’s doors is perfectly authentic. It makes us want to open and close them, too.

Gary Conkling is president and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at  garyc@cfmpdx.com and you can follow him on Twitter at@GaryConkling.

Secretaries of the Future

The future can be daunting to contemplate, but better to give it some consideration now before it becomes the present.

The future can be daunting to contemplate, but better to give it some consideration now before it becomes the present.

Kurt Vonnegut wondered why U.S. Presidents have secretaries of state, interior, defense, treasury, labor, education, veterans affairs and health and human services, but not a secretary for the future.

His question speaks volumes about a lot of organizations that busy themselves with today’s entanglements without casting an eye to future challenges and opportunities.

Many organizations have created departments devoted to sustainability to guide longer term decision making. A few have hired futurists to predict what lies ahead. And then there are visionary CEOs such as Elon Musk and Richard Branson who are committed to speeding up the future.

Considerable energy is given to long-range planning, which often resembles what we would like to see happen as opposed to what is likely to happen. Case in point: Land-use regulations designed to prevent sprawl, but that also limit housing supply, which affects housing affordability.

No one exactly knows what Vonnegut had in mind when he suggested a Secretary of the Future, but you could imagine he meant an office dedicated to looking forward, identifying choices that need to be made and providing a framework to vet those choices.

The Vonnegut Secretary of the Future wouldn’t run hospitals, count money or stage bombing raids. It would be in the idea business. When you look around, you can see plenty of problems that call out for fresh ideas.

Take, for example, how to combat widening income inequality. Or the educational system America needs to remain competitive. Or steps to halt climate change.

A secretary of the future isn’t just needed for the federal government. Most organizations would do well to look up from today’s headaches to see what the future might look like and how they could influence or capitalize on that future. Peering beyond the horizon can open your eyes to breakthrough ideas or new paradigms. You literally see things in a new light. 

Companies that manufacture things from sports apparel to mining machines might contemplate how to navigate in a world where the motivation to chase cheaper labor is offset by punitive trade and tax policies in their home country.

Land developers who must win local voter approval for annexations may want to recast how they approach development and how they sell it to local residents.

Technology companies should search for ways that protect user privacy without creating dark holes for terrorists to operate.

Small business owners facing larger, multi-national competitors could search for unique ways to add value to cement customer loyalty. 

The pressures of today will always dominate our thinking. Vonnegut reminds us that those pressures shouldn’t totally block out thinking about the future. You don’t really need a secretary of the future to guide you.