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  • Writer's pictureElana Duffy

The new prophet motive

Meditation by the sea

- Frank Luby

Two of the most frightening business headlines over the last three weeks both involved the state of California and a couple of guys named Cook.

Benjamin Cook, a NASA scientist, co-authored a new study which claims that the western part of the United States will face its worst drought in 1,000 years, worse than anyone has previously expected. Fellow NASA scientist Tom Painter warned that "Water demand has passed supply in some areas. Throwing 30 years of drought on top of that means we're going to have to change the way we live out here."

His statement makes this a business problem: what will that future look like? Who will make that a smooth change to a different way of living, not a scary one?

A few weeks before that NASA report appeared, Apple CEO Tim Cook announced that his California-based company had just earned a net profit of $200 million per day in its last fiscal quarter. OK, those weren’t his exact words, but that is what earning $18 billion in net profit over three months translates to.

What does a once-in-a-millennium drought have to do with iPads, iPhones, and if you believe last week’s rumors, iCars?

The answer is vision.

Before you roll your eyes at the word “vision” and reach for your Dilbert anthology, please bear with me for a few more minutes. Here is a video clip which is a world-class example of laying out a vision for solving a daunting and pervasive problem.

The speaker in the video combines six proven, powerful techniques which build confidence and trust, offer hope, generate enthusiasm, and make a technical challenge seem so simple that anyone can understand it and embrace it. By harnessing his inner prophet motive, the speaker ignites a profit motive.

Any leader can employ these same techniques to set a compelling course for change, even for small changes that don’t have that rare “change the world” magnitude.

  • Make it a story: This means a narrative built on some of the most basic archetypes. You will notice some “rags to riches” and some “David vs. Goliath” in the video, along with a clear flow which builds tension. What you won’t notice are charts. The storyteller does not use a single prop or chart or visual aid, which means the narrative and the speaker must do all the work. This story would work just as well around a campfire.

  • Focus on purpose, not product: The speaker says he and his small team want to make “tools which amplify an inherent ability” that humans have. Tools are products, obviously. But he freely admits that these tools are constantly evolving and will change beyond recognition over time. Purposes, though, are longer lasting and can provide a greater appeal in the long term.

  • Make it personal: This toolmaker in the video had no shortage of competitors. These much larger companies also recognized a problem and, yes, their tools could solve it. Yet few people used those other tools. Notice how the speaker emphasizes individual adoption instead of grand solutions. He turns a frustrating problem for millions into a problem for one person. Anyone can relate to it. This helps turns the evolution and realization of his vision into a collaboration involving customers, not just creators.

  • Leave the story open ended: The speaker also emphasizes progress and wonder, not ultimate answers: He mentions “glimmers” and “possibilities” but never says the job is done and that his team has the ultimate answer. There is always something more. His narrative takes us on a “what happens next?” journey with a curious, positive quality. There is excitement, but not a trace of fear.

  • Skip the boring details: The speaker offers hardly any technical details. His most frequently cited numbers are prices, in an effort to stress affordability and accessibility. If you trying to make your story personal in a market of millions, you cannot assume any kind of technical fluency. You might assume, however, that your customers will line up to buy things that make their personal lives better.

  • Aim young: In hindsight it is fascinating to see how often the speaker mentions kids (5-year-olds and 5th graders). He seems to know that they are the ones who will reap the biggest rewards from this journey as it continues. Their parents are the guinea pigs, the first adopters, the ones who show his team what works and what doesn’t. The bigger prize, the youngest generation, grows up with the technology and will eventually have purchasing power. What will the future look like, from that water reference? These kids, grown up. Understanding them is key.

Meeting the challenges that the NASA scientists laid out in their recent paper will require prophets before profits. If we need to change the way we live, companies and their leaders need to explain what that means, how we will be comfortable in that future, what we gain, and what we leave behind. They need to sell the future and the transition, and let the products and services evolve from there.

Many of the big problems hanging over us today – energy, water, food supply, health care – have a strong profit motive embedded in legacy technologies. That will change only when new leaders find their inner prophet motives and lay out sexy, alternative futures that welcome us, not frighten us. Let’s hear those prophets excite us with a day-to-day alternative future we want to shape and be a part of.

If they pull that off, their companies may someday also be awash in record amounts of cash and profit.

Frank Luby is co-founder and CEO of Present Tense LLC, a communications company dedicated to helping people express their ideas through better business storytelling. He is co-author of the short ebook “10/10: How to write business content that is memorable and effective”, available on Amazon and other major e-book retailers. To learn more about Present Tense LLC, please visit us at and follow our regular blogs and posts. You can also follow Frank on Twitter: @FrankLuby

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