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Just Like Being There

Removing Barriers Between Storyteller and Audience

By Dante Pannell

In the fictional town of Lake Wobegon, “All the men are strong, all the women are good looking, and all the children are above average.” Every week, for almost forty years, Garrison Keillor , delivered this description during a monologue within his public radio variety show, A Prairie Home Companion. Originating as part of The Grand Ole Opry, the show quickly became a popular window for all Americans into Midwestern heritage and its satirical humor. Shows such as A Prairie Home Companion require powerful storytelling: they must immerse listeners into a different world absent visual or physical context. That the oral medium has continued to thrive even in an era of television and (now) Internet video is a testament to people’s primal connection to storytelling.

The connection audiences made with Keillor ’s show went far beyond anything he could have imagined. The since-retired host often found himself being asked about Lake Wobegon, where it was, and how the (fictitious) people in it were doing. His stories were so compelling that they felt real, and his listeners developed feelings for the characters that were conjured in his imagination.

The message of a well-told story can transcend any distance, and overcome the barriers of technology—whether they be radio, television, or Zoom. As in-person communication becomes rarer, a clear, compelling story is essential for engaging audiences with a message, whether someone is the host of a weekly variety radio show, or leading an organization.

In 2019 Inc. magazine was arguing for the importance of in-person meetings, due to the value of bringing people together—internally and externally—to conduct business. But, Microsoft determined that as of March 2020, up to 38 percent of businesses in the United States were meeting via video. 2020’s public health issues making in-person collaboration less common, and now organizations must determine how to capture the efficacy of in-person communication, while embracing the distance and technology that teams, clients, and prospects are becoming accustomed to.

It remains imperative to inspire employees, grow revenue, and engage potential customers, even while remote. When customers and employees aren’t in physical contact, achieving those goals requires more intention: a defined framework for connection and commitment, and guidelines for how to achieve them. Brand story is an effective way to do this, exemplified by two companies that have defined who they are, and have used that clarity forward—no matter the physical distances that had to be overcome.

InspireHUB (a Woden client) is the creator of the IHUBApp Digital Experience Platform, and has been navigating the reality of remote work since its origin. Founder Karolyn Hart implemented remote work immediately for InspireHUB while working on a project for the Mandela Family . InspireHUB was engaged to help use technology to address the ongoing  pediatric healthcare crisis in South Africa. The family of the late Nelson Mandela was looking for an innovative way to use technology that would help them achieve a number of goals including streamlining communications, donor engagement and fundraising. Hart was the first recruit to the project. During the course of the engagement, she and her team hit many roadblocks, both technical and environmental, but ultimately the main challenge always came down to: “How do we create a technology that can be customized across diverse charities throughout South Africa for non-technical customers?”

InspireHUB was designed around a clearly defined belief: to thrive, brands with large audiences must provide a digital experience that is personal, accessible, and most importantly, secure. So, Hart set out to use the technology on her own team to accomplish what they were promising their clients: “If we are going to build a technology to help unite a country with people in extreme rural environments toward a common goal, then surely we can do this for our own team.” explains Hart. “As a matter of principles and integrity, it stood to reason that we would build a superior product if we were using the same tool to unite our remote team.  If we could meet our own engagement needs through what we built, then that would tell us we were on the right path.”

InspireHUB has team members spread all over North America and Europe,  which has helped it  understand the broken world that its customers experience: the overwhelming fatigue caused by constant communication, never-ending notifications, and incessant notifications that make it difficult to decide what information is actually relevant. If the InspireHUB team could keep its own experience fully digital and accessible, it had an even more effective foundation for doing the same with clients.

Although she had an effective, completely remote team, Hart experimented with in-person work. In the early years, InspireHUB established an office in Texas to provide a place for physical presence. On her first visit to the new space, it was clear the setting felt inauthentic to the organization’s narrative: “We had gathered everyone for a meeting in our boardroom. Within 5 minutes, we were all frustrated by the lack of speed in being able to collaborate and share. So we all went back to our offices and had a good laugh that I had flown all the way to Dallas only to realize that we were faster and more effective working virtually than in-person.”

InspireHUB’s decision to go remote had nothing to do with  social distancing. Hart made the decision to build a remote workforce because her company could connect with its customers best by looking—and operating—like them.

Almost two-thirds of companies had remote workers even before the 2020 coronavirus outbreak. That number will undoubtedly grow, and it can be used as an opportunity to bring employees even closer to their purpose. Helping a team build a better product through experiencing a client’s pain point is one thing, but serving them effectively while staying remote is something else altogether—especially when those clients historically have relied on face-to-face interactions. 17Hats has found ways to develop new client relationships and nurture them absent a single in-person communication.

17hats, also a Woden client, began when co-founder and CEO Donovan Janus’ fiancé, a wedding photographer, needed an invoice for her business. He built an invoice tool for her in Exposure Manager, photography software he developed. That first invoice quickly grew into 17hats.

Most solopreneurs lack resources and access to tools that can make them more efficient. For these one-person shops (76 percent of businesses), everything falls on their shoulders—they feel like they are wearing “17 hats.” That was the start of the 17hats story: ensuring small business owners are in control, and, with this calm confidence, become their best, most productive selves.

While these individuals are seeking support, their norm is to do so in-person: the ability to reach out for help no matter where they are is crucial. Janus began deploying a remote business development strategy that provided the level of assurance that comes with in-person communication, but executed remotely to achieve the scale necessary for a SaaS business.

One of 17hats’ largest barriers when implementing this remote sales funnel was that small business owners are used to dealing with people they know and trust, often face-to-face. Instead of distance being a challenge, 17hats saw an opportunity to address one of their prospects’ most critical pain points—isolation. 17hats built its entire funnel around educational resources that gave the isolated solopreneur information and resources they could use to improve their business—all while fostering trust over distance. An ongoing series of 30-day “business makeovers,” also done remotely, reinforced that 17hats could have an incredible impact on a business, regardless of where they were in the world. It was slower than a handshake, but the effect was even more enduring.

Winning business remotely is one thing, but small business owners also value the service that comes from relationships forged through shared experiences. 17hats had to find a remote service model that replicated this intimacy, which it did by infusing in its product additional pieces of the 17hats story. Client onboarding, systemizing booking appointments, and even a collaboration with Greetabl; a streamlined card customization company, all reinforced the commitment to allowing the solopreneur to focus on what matters most. Availability through chat, and proactive delivery of new features users request reinforce that the company is as friendly a face as any at a local networking event.

InspireHUB wanted to provide personal, accessible, secure digital experiences, so it built its culture and employee experience around these same features. 17hats wanted to help solopreneurs focus on their passion—and stop wearing so many hats in their business—so it developed a remote acquisition and service model that kept them out of their customers’ way, and supporting their dreams.

Like A Prairie Home Companion, the power of story to transcend technology and distance is the same for avid listeners as it is for team members, clients, and prospects. The magic of Lake Wobegon was how real Keillor made it feel, even if it could never be seen or touched: companies must find a way to do the same thing.

Dante is an associate at Woden. Want to stay connected? Add Dante on LinkedIn, read our extensive guide on how to craft your organization’s narrative, or send us an email at connect@wodenworks.com to discuss whatever your storytelling needs may be.