How to be as clear as Elon Musk

Dublin, Wednesday 31th October 2013: Pictured at the The Web Summit 2013, RDS. Photo by Dan Taylor/Heisenberg Media
Photo: Dan Taylor/ Heisenberg Media via Wikimedia Commons

While others write bullshit-filled press-releases, Elon Musk tells you exactly what he’s planning, in plain language. Here’s what you can learn from Musk: write directly to the reader, be clear, be organized, and be engaging.

Elon Musk’s Master Plan, Part Deux

Yesterday, Elon Musk posted “Master Plan, Part Deux” on the Tesla site. It begins like this:

The first master plan that I wrote 10 years ago is now in the final stages of completion. It wasn’t all that complicated and basically consisted of:

  1. Create a low volume car, which would necessarily be expensive
  2. Use that money to develop a medium volume car at a lower price
  3. Use that money to create an affordable, high volume car
    And…
  4. Provide solar power. No kidding, this has literally been on our website for 10 years.

Musk is a visionary. But visionaries are as common as dandelions. What sets Musk apart is that he not only conceives visions like PayPal, Tesla, and Space-X, he executes them. It’s no surprise he thinks and communicates in numbered lists, because he’s disciplined.

Write directly to the reader

Musk writes in the first person, to the reader, in the second person. Examples (I’ve highlighted the pronouns that create the impression of directness):

The reason we had to start off with [a low-volume car] was that it was all I could afford to do with what I made from PayPal.

[W]e must get off fossil fuels anyway and that virtually all scientists agree that dramatically increasing atmospheric and oceanic carbon levels is insane, the faster we achieve sustainability, the better. . . . Here is what we plan to do to make that day come sooner . . .

When true self-driving is approved by regulators, it will mean that you will be able to summon your Tesla from pretty much anywhere. Once it picks you up, you will be able to sleep, read or do anything else enroute to your destination. . . . You will also be able to add your car to the Tesla shared fleet just by tapping a button on the Tesla phone app and have it generate income for you while you‘re at work or on vacation . . .

In this 1500-word post, Musk uses “I” 7 times, “we” 16 times, and “you” or “your” 15 times. Your company’s public statements and press releases should read like this. It makes you human and makes your relationship with customers real and visible. It turns your company from an abstract shareholder entity into a concrete problem-solver connecting one group of people (your staff) to another (your customers).

Be clear

Musk has a complex set of ideas (his other company is, literally, staffed by rocket scientists) but he makes it really easy to see what he’s getting at.

[We want to c]reate a smoothly integrated and beautiful solar-roof-with-battery product that just works . . . We can’t do this well if Tesla and SolarCity are different companies, which is why we need to combine and break down the barriers inherent to being separate companies.

As the technology matures, all Tesla vehicles will have the hardware necessary to be fully self-driving with fail-operational capability, meaning that any given system in the car could break and your car will still drive itself safely. . . . I should add a note here to explain why Tesla is deploying partial autonomy now, rather than waiting until some point in the future. The most important reason is that, when used correctly, it is already significantly safer than a person driving by themselves and it would therefore be morally reprehensible to delay release simply for fear of bad press or some mercantile calculation of legal liability.

When true self-driving is approved by regulators, it will mean that you will be able to summon your Tesla from pretty much anywhere.  . . . You will also be able to add your car to the Tesla shared fleet just by tapping a button on the Tesla phone app and have it generate income for you while you’re at work or on vacation, . . .

Any questions? Well, sure, you may have plenty of questions about whether Tesla can do these things, or whether they are good ideas. But there is no questions about what Musk plans to do. It’s as clear as an Annie Haslam vocal.

Be organized

Musk writes in sections that make perfect sense and link together. The structure is transparent. Here’s a zoomed-out look:

musk sections

Then he sums it up at the end, completely consistently:

So, in short, Master Plan, Part Deux is:

Create stunning solar roofs with seamlessly integrated battery storage
Expand the electric vehicle product line to address all major segments
Develop a self-driving capability that is 10X safer than manual via massive fleet learning
Enable your car to make money for you when you aren’t using it

Be engaging

You don’t have to be engaging. But if you’re making a case this audacious (and have a history of snarky responses to criticism), it helps. Musk is not just visionary, but human, and, occasionally, humble.

I thought our chances of success were so low that I didn’t want to risk anyone’s funds in the beginning but my own. The list of successful car company startups is short. . . .  Starting a car company is idiotic and an electric car company is idiocy squared.

Part of the reason I wrote the first master plan was to defend against the inevitable attacks Tesla would face accusing us of just caring about making cars for rich people, implying that we felt there was a shortage of sports car companies or some other bizarre rationale. Unfortunately, the blog didn’t stop countless attack articles on exactly these grounds, so it pretty much completely failed that objective.

You’re not Elon Musk. But you can write like him.

I know you’re not the CEO of a huge company. But write to your staff, you boss, and your customers like a human. Use “I” and “we” and “you.” Organize your thinking so people can follow it, and use plain language. It’s working for him, and it will work for you.

3 responses to “How to be as clear as Elon Musk

  1. Great post. There’s something else, too, that you got close to:

    > Well, sure, you may have plenty of questions about whether Tesla can do these things,
    > or whether they are good ideas. But there is no questions about what Musk
    > plans to do.

    An absolute key to Musk’s bullshit-free strategy (which is what this is) is that he’s not afraid to be *wrong.* It will be dead easy to look back in five or ten years and see what parts of his vision were right and came true, and which didn’t.

    Fear of being proven wrong is a huge casual factor in the production of business and strategic bullshit, in my experience.

    1. Eric, that is exactly right.

      Being wrong is bad. Frankly, being wrong and sneaky about it is worse than being wrong and bold about it. As far as strategy goes, if you fuck up, you fuck up.

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