Elon Musk vs Tim Cook – a contrast in public speaking

As a media and presentation trainer it is tempting for me to train everyone to speak the way I do…
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By Dustin Eno
Director, Navigate Response

How CEOs speak and present themselves, especially in a crisis, has a huge impact on how their company is perceived, but there’s no right way to speak in public.

As a media and presentation trainer it is tempting for me to train everyone to speak the way I do, but doing so would usually work poorly as different people have different natural styles and the best results will usually be achieved by refining a speaker’s natural style rather than forcing them to adopt someone else’s style (e.g. mine).

Tim Cook, CEO of Apple, is undeniably an outstanding public speaker. Whether at a product launch or in an interview he is clear, polished and confident. His presentations are impeccably rehearsed and yet manage to retain an air of casualness – his style matches Apple’s brand reputation for excellence while remaining effortlessly “cool”.

Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla and SpaceX (and soon to be owner of Twitter) has a nearly opposite public speaking style. He rambles when he’s excited, he forgets what’s next in his slides, he leaves long pauses that give the audience enough time to wonder if he has forgotten what he is saying and yet, it works. Eccentric inventor, absent-minded professor, Musk’s public speaking style matches his personal brand and the brands of his companies.

For a public speaking coach, it would be tempting to try to teach Musk to present more like Cook, but such an attempt would likely be a mistake for two reasons.

First, I’m not sure that Musk could speak the way Cook does. Sure, he could be taught a script, taught to gesture at certain moments, to step there and pause here, but I suspect he would lose any sense of naturalness – lose his charisma. Without getting drawn too far into the debate over nurture vs nature (how much of someone’s character is taught vs predetermined at birth), most people find some ways of doing things easily and other ways very difficult. When coaching public speaking it is usually best to build on the speaker’s natural strengths – rehearsed polish doesn’t appear to be one of Musk’s strengths.

Second, Cook’s style wouldn’t work as well for Musk’s brands. Could Musk lead an Apple product launch in his normal style? Absolutely not but Musk’s brands aren’t about delivering a slick final product that “just works”. Tesla buyers don’t expect to buy a car that’s perfect today, they expect to be part of an exciting process of innovation. Musk’s speaking style suggests he doesn’t have all the answers, but he has lots of answers and he’s really excited about getting more… and you should be too.

It’s also about audience, what style will resonate with an audience? Personally, I’d rather listen to Cook than Musk, Obama than Trump, and Ellen DeGeneres than Oprah Winfrey, but clearly millions of people would strongly disagree with me.

Public speaking coaches sometimes ask the question: “who would you most like to present like?” It’s an interesting question, but in some ways the more useful question is: “who do you think you are most like when you’re presenting?”

 Instead of giving everyone the idea to speak like some polished orator, teach people to build on their own style and strengths. Doing so will produce a more cohesive brand, a more effortless speaker and, as an added bonus, it will be easier for all involved.

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