As the hybrid working world continues to embed itself across cultures and workforces, L&D departments need a voice that can be heard over the squeal of tightening budgets and competing priorities.
Creating learning content should not be painstaking or time & labour intensive. Very often it’s a matter of digesting complex data, and reconstructing it as a simple, coherent and - most importantly – engaging message.
This is the crux of good learning design, and Andy has had his fair share of experiences….
Many of us will be called upon to present complex data to colleagues, clients or students at some point. Although there are many well-documented techniques and templates to help with this, I wanted to deconstruct a best practice example. I wanted to identify the elements that made it successful so I could replicate them myself. This exercise didn’t go how I thought it would.
When looking for examples of influential data presenters, one name that inevitably kept coming up was Elon Musk. His controversial comments and actions keep him in the news, so perhaps his skill for gaining and maintaining attention could warrant a closer look? One website opined that his best presentation was for Neuralink, so this is the one I chose to analyze.
At this point I must apologize for my misleading title; Neuralink, in case you’re not aware, is a Musk-owned company seeking to amalgamate Artificial Intelligence (AI) and humans. So it is from this presentation, rather than having microchip brain implants myself, that I considered what worked well (and not-so-well) in a presentation from an industry leader.
The presentation begins like an advertisement. The stylized video shows precision robotics and focused surgeons bathed in surreal lighting. Music combines industrial, ambient, and melodic elements with a just-audible gramophone crackle. Humans and technology are in perfect harmony. Waveforms suggest I’m seeing ‘data’ on some level, although my untrained eyes don't quite know what it is yet. Musk enters the stage to deliver a strong opening:
“That video was not Shutterstock, that was actually Neuralink. That’s actual video from the company. So, if you want to get a sense of what it’s like to work at Neuralink, that video is indicative.” Musk has begun by showing us what looks like an abstract fantasy, and then declaring it as reality. He has my attention.
Another well-crafted video takes us through the basics of neurons and synapses. This isn’t the sort of knowledge I’d usually seek out, but I found myself wanting to know more. The concise phrase ‘merge with AI’ creates an enigma that piques my interest in what’s to follow, and that’s a data presentation technique worth remembering.
Next, Musk begins to talk about the benefits to patients of existing technologies, specifically Deep Brain Stimulation (DBS). This is where it gets personal for me, as I have a close friend with Parkinson’s Disease who has received this treatment. The difference DBS made to his quality of life was immeasurable. I was keen to see how Musk would weave a patient story into the presentation; surely he would show how this brain-manipulating technology could be utilized to improve the lives of people who really needed help. Dare I dream that this technology could further reduce, or even remove, my friend’s symptoms?
Sadly, there was no further mention of Parkinson’s, or any other patient stories. This seemed like a huge missed opportunity. Insights into who would benefit, and how they could be helped, would have elevated my perception of the technology. Instead of being a passing (if slightly frightening) curiosity, I would have been enthusing about a vital breakthrough. I also believe it could have converted, or at least softened, many other sceptics. So another data presentation technique worth remembering (this time highlighted by its absence) is that people’s stories matter.
There was another part of the presentation that jarred slightly. Musk’s naturalistic style, relying on his knowledge and charisma rather than notes or prompts, means there are sometimes pauses and even stammers. As one commenter observed, “when you see Musk speak without ever faulting or pausing, you'll know he's been plugged into the system!”. Usually, he gets away with it, but the pauses and stammers around the word ‘safe’ made me wince. When I’m presenting, I prefer to rehearse every part of my delivery. If I have enough time, I like to know word-for-word what I’m going to say, and even how I’m going to say it. If I got flustered over the word ‘safe’ in a presentation where safety is such a key concern, that would knock my confidence and affect everything I did afterwards. We should all play to our strengths and present in the style we are most comfortable with, but I would argue that even if you’ve mastered the ‘shoot-from-the-hip’ approach it could be wise to identify where the key messages appear and rehearse the delivery carefully.
The next information given is that the implant will be controlled via Bluetooth and a smartphone app. This could be a concern for anyone who’s had an issue with connectivity (which is probably everyone) but the consequences with brain implants could be much more serious than with say, losing your Satnav at a tricky junction. Musk addresses this concern by making a joke of it. Perhaps you can get away with that (to a point) when you’re Elon Musk, but the rest of us should probably seek to address any possible weaknesses and concerns head-on, with openness and honesty.
Several other presenters followed. Seeing how the implant had evolved, and how design priorities had shifted was reassuring, lending the breakthrough technology an air of maturity. Expanded photographs of implants next to thumbs, and electrode threads dwarfed by human hair, helped us to visualize the scale of the components.
There is a strong finale: “We think that people will be able to gain naturalistic control over their computers. Not just a mouse, but keyboard, game controllers and other devices”
“Any movement a person could imagine, running, dancing, even kung-fu”.
“Restore speech to a paralyzed person who is no longer able to talk”.
I would have responded much better to this presentation if the paralyzed patient, or a patient with Parkinson’s, had been the stars of the show. To see how these technically brilliant, audacious advances could restore hope to seriously ill people would have been meaningful and persuasive. The idea of people having brain implants to video game, dance and kung-fu their way through life is just scary.
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