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Recovering From a Gaffe: Lessons From Elon Musk’s Cybertruck Fail

By / Nov 22, 2019 (YouTube screenshot)

The Tesla CEO managed to find humor in what was an embarrassing scene during a high-profile product launch. Here’s how quick thinking can help you recover, fast.

It was perhaps the most exceedingly weird product demo of the year, for a product that seemed out there even for Elon Musk.

But then it turned into something embarrassing.

Musk, the CEO of Tesla Motors, introduced a new vehicle concept called “Cybertruck” at a media event Thursday evening, and in the midst of it, he made a bold claim that the armored windows of the vehicle were “bulletproof.” The good news was that a sledgehammer that hit the metal exterior didn’t cause any damage. But when Tesla’s design lead threw a large metal ball at the driver’s side front window, it caused the window to shatter. Then the design lead did it again, to similar results.

But Musk was able to mostly save the moment—as much as a moment featuring a cyberpunk-inspired truck getting damaged on stage can be saved—with some characteristic humor.

“We threw wrenches, we threw everything, even literally the kitchen sink, at the glass, and it didn’t break. For some weird reason, it broke now,” Musk joked, according to CNBC. “I don’t know why. We will fix it in post.”

While it was entertaining to watch, it also brings up talk about what leaders caught in similarly awkward moments on stage can do to bounce back. A few ideas:

Preparation is key. Back in 2014, director Michael Bay found himself stumbling through a CES presentation for Samsung. The stumble highlighted that associations should be sure to prepare their speakers for what to expect on stage—and prepare on their own end, so a stumble doesn’t turn into a disaster.

Don’t lose your cool. Bad moments happen to even the most seasoned speakers. But the difference between a good speaker and a bad one might be how long they’re willing to linger on a bad moment. As the Ginger Public Speaking blog notes, letting the moment roll off your back and moving past it, as Musk did, can help you salvage a tough failure. “When we are anxious, we tend to see things in a harsher light,” the firm explains. “If you learn how to ‘let things go’ without reacting, you’ll develop the skills needed when the unexpected happens as a public speaker.”

If possible, keep going. Technology is a tough thing to demonstrate—and as associations do more tech things, leaders might find themselves playing Steve Jobs to their members. But things can always go wrong. This is something that legendary Microsoft executive Steven Sinofsky learned the hard way in 2012, when he tried to show off an early Surface model and the machine froze while he was talking. But he kept going as long as he could before the machine totally crashed—an unfortunate moment, but an admirable effort that helped him save face.

Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is the social media journalist for Associations Now, a former newspaper guy, and a man who is dangerous when armed with a good pun. More »

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