The Intelligent Workplace

The Intelligent Workplace

Episode 24

Story telling is not just for kids!

​Steve Clayton
Chief Storyteller at Microsoft​​

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on email
On this episode, I speak with a man who has the coolest job title in tech. His name is Steve Clayton, and he is the Chief Storyteller for Microsoft.
 
From birth, we listen to stories that entertain us, teach us, inspire us and connect us with others sharing the same story time experience. But as we grow older, something changes and the stories get left behind. Are we too busy, concentrating on adult life?
 
But somewhere inside that adult body is an inner child wanting to share in the joy of a good story.
 
So what exactly does a Chief Story teller actually do? Is there a strategy to connect with that inner child? What are the tricks of the trade in crafting corporate stories? Why does Microsoft see it as being so important that they now have an entire team dedicated to it?
 
I had so many questions, and luckily for me, Steve had just as many answers. In this episode, Steve shares valuable insights on the art of story telling in the modern workplace.
 
Episode Links

Chris:                    

So, welcome to the intelligent workplace podcast, Steve Clayton.

Steve:                  

Thanks, Chris. All pleasure to be here. We’re just missing the beer by the sound of it.

Chris:                    

We are, this is going to be a great chat. I’m really keen to explore your mind on this. Chief storyteller at Microsoft, it is such a cool title. But do people give you funny looks when you actually tell them what your job title is?

Steve:                  

They do, they still do, and I’ll say still because I think I get less funny looks these days, but that title came around about eight years ago. And I read something recently, it was actually a piece of research by LinkedIn, a company that Microsoft now owns. And they said, “If you go back seven or eight years, nobody had storyteller within, the job title, within LinkedIn. And now there are something like 20,000 people that do.” I suppose there’s 20,000 people, I mean, I’ll check those numbers for you and confirm them.

                               

But I suppose there’s at least 20,000 people who now don’t look at me quite as curiously when I say my job title chief storyteller, but yeah, it was unusual back then. It’s still a little bit unusual now, but I think it’s definitely been more of an awareness on a rise in this either job, or professional storytelling, I would say certainly over the last six or seven years.

Chris:                    

It does sound a little bit like you are going to sit down on a big picture, but can read it aloud to us. But we know that’s not the case. Let’s take it back a step for a minute and talk about how you actually came to this role. Because I’m going to say that you’ve pretty much lived out every amateur bloggers dream of going pro, and then you have pretty much up sized that, because you started off with a little blog called, what was it called, again?

Steve:                  

Called Geek in Disguise, and that was I think probably about 13 years ago, in the UK. I worked at Microsoft in the UK, I worked in our partner team at the time. So, led a small team of partner technical specialists, and our job was to help partners in the UK understand Microsoft technologies, and to go and deploy those technologies, and work with customers. And so, I spent a lot of my time out and about meeting people, meeting customers and go into all kinds of different events mainly in the City of London. And through those meetings, I began to get this growing, understanding that people didn’t understand Microsoft, or at least didn’t understand the Microsoft that I worked for.

                               

And so, I somewhat naively thought, “Well, I can solve this, I can set the record straight by writing a blog, which I started to do as a hobby was not my day job at all.” I had started to write this blog, just explaining the things that I saw in Microsoft that I think were interesting, whether there was people, or projects or products, or just stories that I wanted to tell. And then that sort of blog grew a little bit, in sort of followership, and notoriety over the course of about three years, and then ultimately led to the gentleman who runs communications at Microsoft, a guy called Frank Shaw, phoned me up one day when I was at home in London, and said, “I want to speak to you about your blog.” And I thought he was trying me up to fire me frankly.

                               

I was slightly nervous. Frank and I knew each other, but I didn’t know him that well. And so, my only assumption was, he was phoning me to tell me to either stop blogging, or that my employment at the company is determined with something I had written on the blog. But quite the contrary, Frank said, “I really, I love what you do, you clearly have a passion for this company, you have a passion for storytelling, writing, and I think you should come and do that as a full time job in Seattle.”

                               

And I initially thought he was joking. But three months later, we’d sort of packed up our house, and sold the house, and moved to Seattle, and here we are nine years on.

Chris:                    

So, where did that love of storytelling come from? Were you like a reader of books as a kid, or did you love fairy tales? Or how did you develop that, and where did it originate from?

Steve:                  

Yeah, I thought about that quite a bit because the career path I took when I, I loved English at school when I up until 12 or 13. And then I got my electives, and did my A levels in the UK, and ultimately if I really look back, I’d say one of the things when I decided what I was going to go to university to study, one of the things I wanted, I had a passion to go and study was to be a journalist. And at the time, there was only one place in the UK that you could go and get a degree in journalism, or at least that’s how I remember it. And I was in Cornwall, and I love Cornwall, but it’s not a place that I wanted to spend my 17, 18, 19 years of my life.

                               

And so, I sort of changed path a little bit, and I said, “Well, I’m going to go study my other passion, which was technology.” All my family, my brother, my dad were both in technology, and I love computers. And so, I pursued a degree in information, and computer information and computing study that was called the Loughborough University. And really enjoyed that, it was a fascinating course, it was very different than a traditional computer studies course but ultimately is kind of a computer studies, and meets library studies course.

                               

I pursued this career, left University went to work for a pharmaceutical company in the IT department, and then ultimately joined Microsoft as a techie sales guy. But always had this passion for writing. I wouldn’t say I’m a great writer from a technical point of view. I’m surrounded by people who are brilliant technical writers, and they train to be great writers, but I like to tell stories. But I think the real answer to your question is if I look back at my childhood, I was surrounded by people who are great storytellers. Liverpool is a city that has a lot of interesting characters, and a lot of rich history in storytelling, whether that’s through music with people like the Beatles, or through a lot of comedians that have come through Liverpool.

                               

And so, I surrounded, both from a regional point of view, but also just my family, sort of my parents, my grandparents, my uncles, and aunts are all great storytellers. And so, I think that’s where at least some of the DNA of the storytelling comes from.

Chris:                    

Sort of storytelling by osmosis, perhaps.

Steve:                  

Yes.

Chris:                    

Now, when you first come into the business, you were a little frustrated with the lack of freedom that you had, because there was an approval process to go through and the like, but you ended up finding a way around that at the time, and so, what’s worrying, how does it work now? How do you maintain that element of freedom now, now that the team is a little bit larger?

Steve:                  

Yeah, I think when I first came into the job, when I moved to Seattle, I was a kind of a solo blogger still, and I was somewhat of an experiment, I would say that can you bring a person who’s not from a writing background, not from a PR background, or from a marketing background, and put them into that community, and have them not only survive, but thrive. And that’s what, I think one of the things Frank was doing, was to see if that was possible to bring in a different type of background and skill set.

                               

And in the first few months, I felt like I was a little bit stymied by the culture of communications, and press releases, which is a perfect understandable culture that if you’re going to put a press release out as a company, then naturally it goes through a set of approvals, and sets of sort of legal reviews, and all that kind of good stuff that requires, whereas blogging it’s a bit more, shoot from the hip. [inaudible 00:09:16].

                               

And in some senses, it needs to be otherwise, you don’t feel like you’re getting the authentic voice of the individual. And so, there was a little bit of tension initially then, with a great help from my manager Frank. He was like, “Hey, I’ve employed you to come and be this spokesperson, a blogger, an authentic voice, so you should feel free to take a few more risks.” And we did. And I’ve been able to carry that through to the culture, I think, I hope of the team that I now have the pleasure of managing and leading, which is about 35 people who are doing storytelling.

                               

That’s not to say that we don’t have process on rigor, and procedure, because we put lots of stories out into the world that do require approvals, and do require stakeholders reviews, to make sure that we get our facts correct, and all of that type of stuff. So, there’s an element of things that we do, that are still, I would say, have less rigor around them in order to maintain our authentic voice. But there’s also a strong requirement for some of the things that we write. They’re very clearly statements of fact, and so they require that level of sort of process and procedure.

Chris:                    

For sure. With a team of 35, does that mean that the content is written maybe more from a bottom up, as opposed to a top down approach?

Steve:                  

It’s a real mix, because we have everything within the team. We have everything from the official Microsoft blog, which literally is that’s sort of the official communication.

Chris:                    

It sounds serious.

Steve:                  

Yeah, it’s serious. And we talk about serious topics on the, around things like regulation, or around things like environmental sustainability, around things like what are we doing as a company, and we announced, we also have, this financial information that goes through the official Microsoft blog. So, all of that has this sort of, written in a very official way. And then, on the other end of the spectrum within the team, things like a Microsoft YouTube channel, where we have this great series we’ve been publishing for the last few months called Microsoft on box. And it’s two young women at the company, who are just having fun showing people different parts of the company, we have thing like the corporate Twitter handle for the company, and the Instagram channel, and the Facebook page, all of those are run through the team.

                               

And so, you have to, it sort of horses for courses, and you have to choose the style, and the language to match the channel, and the audience that you’re trying to reach. So, it’s a real mix in terms how content is produced.

Chris:                    

Do you feel that it’s important to be able to democratize storytelling within the business?

Steve:                  

I’m not sure I would go as far as democratizing Chris. I would say, we definitely want to expand the capability of storytelling as a company. But I still believe that there is a craft, and there is a profession around storytelling. I’m not sure that we want everybody to be anointed as a storyteller overnight. Having said that, part of my responsibility is I helped to run a community within our marketing department of Microsoft. And that community of, and as a community of storytellers that we invite people to say, “Hey, if you’re interested in this discipline, you’re interested in building your storytelling capability, then we host things like monthly calls. We have an annual summit, we share lots of expertise around storytelling.”

                               

And that’s about 1400 people at the company, largely who are in marketing. We’re trying to help build the, I would say build the discipline, and the capability of storytelling rather than democratize storytelling.

Chris:                    

Is there like an internal course in corporate storytelling, perhaps that you run?

Steve:                  

There is there are a couple of courses that we have, we have one that we run externally in partnership with a company, we have one that we are just about to begin piloting within the company, with an Australian native, actually with Bernadette Jiwa who’s from Melbourne. She runs a great Online Course around storytelling that she’s built with Seth Godin. And then we have a whole set of other resources inside of the company. We have a, we wrote a small book earlier this year that was called the Art and Grounds of Storytelling.

Chris:                    

Can I say thank you for producing that? Because that is amazing.

Steve:                  

It’s a pleasure. Within, well there are two things, I think the thing that you might be referring to Chris, is the digital handbook, [inaudible 00:14:22] that you need to know.

Chris:                    

Sorry, yes.

Steve:                  

So, one that we haven’t showed as much external, we got this small internal book, but I’ll send you a copy of it in a nick of time. Here is of story telling. But the one that you’re referencing is the Digital Storytelling handbook. That’s from news.microsoft.com/handbook. And then is, yeah, I’m glad people like it, we’ve had great feedback on it. And there really is soup to nuts on how do you build a storytelling team? How do you hire them how to structure the team? How do you do corporate writing? And yeah, we’ve had a lot of great feedback on that.

                               

So, there was a pleasure to put it out into the world and become big kudos to a gentleman called Michael Warm on my team has the driving force behind that.

Chris:                    

It’s wonderful, in the book, I love that you introduced the concept by saying, “I think it was stories engage our intellect, our emotion, and our senses are the best way to help absorb, and remember information.” And as I read that, I thought, if that’s the case, why was so many corporations forgetting about using stories as a tool to engage customers? I think you said the 20,000 chief storytellers, but maybe there should be one in every single business.

Steve:                  

I think so. And I don’t really know the answer to that, but what I do know is that a little bit as you alluded to in your intro, stories have stood the test of time. For those of us with kids, we talk about telling bedtime stories, for those of us, what we’ll beeing a kid, so hopefully we’ve all been read a bedtime story. And it’s not by accident. It’s because stories are things that that stick with us, and they get told and they get retold, and they get embellished, and they stand the test of time.

                               

Another way of saying that is, if somebody walked up to you in the pub this evening and said, “Let me tell you some data.” You probably would turn in the other direction. Because what people do, they might not say these words, but people basically say to you, “Let me tell you a story.” And the way that they say that is, “Hey, let me tell you about a journey I went on, or a book I read, or a piece of music I listened to, or a concert I went to, or a conference I attended.” And essentially what they’re saying is, “Let me tell you a story.”

Chris:                    

Yeah, absolutely. That was a little bit of a loaded question, that one because I would love to have that title LiveTiles one day.

Steve:                  

I’m in full support of that. Just let me know who I need the email to suggest that.

Chris:                    

Thank you. I read a quote from British journalist Katie Legge, where she was described you as the Greek who can speak plain English. And she says if it’s complex, Steve makes it simple. And that really resonated with me because when I started this podcast, I took a bit of a similar approach. I work in tech, but I’m not technical, and I can really get lost in some of those deep technical conversations. I decided that I’d let the experts explain the technical concepts to me in Simple English. And I want to know has that been a bit of a key component to your success? I mean, you can talk to the technical crowd, no doubt, but also being able to engage with a less technical audience, which I assume is probably larger than the technical.

Steve:                  

Yep. Yeah, you’re right on that assumption. And I think it is a big thing, well I think it has been a big key to my successes, is sometimes I think my job is really to be a translator, at least in Microsoft is to take what can sometimes be very difficult and complex topics, and turn them into a story. And also I would say, over the last three or four years is being able to experiment, and how do you do that? It’s not just about written storytelling, it’s about visual storytelling. It’s about using illustration. It’s about using physical products for storytelling, not just digital products. And so, a lot of my job is around, my job and my team’s job I should say, is around how do we translate what can sometimes be very complex technology into things that people who are not technologists can understand.

Chris:                    

You translate, you break it down, and you build it back together, you build like a business with that mix of your articles, your videos, your photos, this live presentations, fun stuff, instructions, it’s a real skill I believe.

Steve:                  

Yeah, I think we look at, I look across my team, and we do everything from, as I mentioned earlier, we publish on our social channels, we write feature length stories. But we also do, whenever you see Satya stand on stage, or one of our events and do a demo, my team helps to build all of his technical demos, but we don’t really think of those as being technical demos, we think of them as being stories, and hopefully what you’ve seen if anybody’s seen those over the last few years, there’s a lot more story element to them. It’s not just, “Hey, let me show you some new features and capabilities, or features and functions.” It’s about, “Let me show you how somebody is using this product in the real world and the story behind that.”

Chris:                    

Yeah, absolutely. Just give me two seconds. With that has the art of storytelling changed with the digital age or is it just your delivery method?

Steve:                  

I think the art of storytelling has, I think it stays the same, and I think it will stay the same, and I’m relatively binary, and maybe somewhat traditional on this. I think at the heart of great storytelling is great writing, and then that writing can find different channels. I’m a huge fan of visual storytelling, which is obviously not writing pictures, and when cavemen drew etchings on a wall in a cave, they were doing storytelling through pictures.

                               

And so, it’s a, I think it will continue to evolve in terms of how stories can be expressed, and the format they can be expressed in. Because 300 years ago, video didn’t exist, or the moving picture didn’t exist. But the essence of it still is this notion of a story, which is typically involves a person, or people who’ve gone on a journey, encountered some tensional conflict, being able to overcome that and had a successful outcome. And that’s sort of the classic arc of any great story. And most of the storytelling that we do still sticks relatively close to that arc.

Chris:                    

What do you say then when the cynics say, this storytelling idea is just a bunch of fluffy stuff, and it’s really just a new name for PR.

Steve:                  

I think, I say that, I think that’s doing a disservice to PR. First I’m surrounded by a lot of people who are in the PR business. And PR is a great business, for a purpose, it’s there to shift and change, and create public perception through the media about a company, or a product or a topic. And so, PR is a noble profession. And I would say an element of PR is storytelling. And I think, sometimes people react to the word storytelling because they think it’s a made up word, or they think it’s a made up profession. But I guess my reaction to it is we’ve all been, at least, I would like to think we’ve all heard stories, we all tell stories.

                               

And if people really step back and say, “Well, maybe my simple answer is when you,” back to something I said earlier, “… when you, you go out for dinner this weekend with friends, or you go to the pub this evening for a point, is being able to just recognize when you’re in storytelling mode, because the vast majority of people are, that’s what we, it’s just what we do, to create connection between humans we tell stories.”

Chris:                    

And you’ve told plenty of them, and going back through all the stories that you’ve told, one of the ones that really got people’s attention early was that 88 acres, which was the story behind all the cool tech, and the people that built the Redmond facility, but there have been so many great ones since. I really love the one about the Block by Block project that set out to improve the urban areas in Vietnam, by way of crediting the Minecraft product tops, that was really inspiring. But I have to say that my personal favorite is the Xbox Adaptive Controller, because that one seriously moved me. I was wondering if you have a favorite amongst all of them.

Steve:                  

I think all of those are certainly in the list of favorites. The 88 acres is kind of a favorite because in some ways, it was our first, in a meaningful way into our own storytelling. And I look back on it now with pride, but also with some scars in terms of what it took to put all that together. And it’s a pretty rudimentary way. It was delivered via, I means handcrafted HTML. It was held together with a bit of duct tape and some string and some wire.

                               

It worked, and it was incredibly successful. It’s, by all kinds of different measures. That certainly is one that I cherish, because it kicked off the journey that we are still on, and then I think my favorite story that we’ve told, my favorite story that I’ve been involved in with the company is about five and a bit years ago, all coming up on five years ago, I should say, July 29, 2015, I had the chance to go to Kenya, with our CEO, and to tell a story about how we had deployed a wireless technology into rural parts of Kenya, WiFi technology to a whole community of 30,000 people who previously didn’t have any connectivity.

                               

And you could see how it, literally from the moment this technology was switched on, it changed people’s lives because it gave them access to the things that we take for granted Bing, Go-google, or the Khan Academy, or Wikipedia or YouTube, or all of these things that we take for granted. And telling that story. The reason it really was meaningful to me is not long before that, we had restated or come up with a new mission statement for the company I should say, which is to empower every person organization on the planet to achieve more, and that story really became the very clear manifestation of that mission. That remains my favorite story.

Chris:                    

Brilliant, I love it. Great stories can come from anywhere, but on tipping, you can afford them to just, fall into your lap, you need to work pretty hard to find them, don’t you?

Steve:                  

It’s, you do and you don’t, you need to invest the time, and the energy, and the effort to do great storytelling. But what we found, I would say is, as we’ve told great stories, it then creates this effect, where more great stories find you. As we started to build this capability within the company, and within our team, more and more people started to approach us and say, “well, we love that type of storytelling you’re doing, we don’t see it anywhere else at the company. Please can you help us tell our story using that same capability?”

Chris:                    

That’s perfect.

Steve:                  

I would say it’s a little bit of push and pull for sure.

Chris:                    

Yeah. Well, I was just wondering whether maybe okay to pitch you a story if you don’t mind.

Steve:                  

Go for it.

Chris:                    

I call it the little as you’re the could. Now work with me on this one. It’s the story of a new CEO. Let’s call him Satya, who made a conscious decision to prioritize cloud computing when he took over the business. And by promoting innovation, he changed the culture of the company. It’s a story of a little product called AS cloud services, and we’ll call it the underdog looking to rise up and succeed against this bigger opponents. Then one day, little Satya introduces Azure to the US Department of Defense, the shareholder crowd roles and everyone lives happily ever after. How is that?

Steve:                  

It’s an interest version of a story that is a lot more nuanced and complicated. And there’s a lot more to it than that, but I can see where you’re going with that.

Chris:                    

Thanks. Maybe we’ll share with that one for now.

Steve:                  

Yeah, it’s one like I said earlier, that requires a lot more detailed investigation and reporting, and again some the big element of the change in Microsoft over the last five and a half years for sure has been around Azure. And clearly a big elements of that change has been such as leadership. But there are many, many aspects towards Azure. And I think the focus around cloud is a clear one, but also the focus around culture change of the company, in combination with that has been a significant factor that I’ve been fortunate enough to play a part in. That’s a very big element of the story as well.

Chris:                    

Yeah, for sure. We’ve got on a serious note, of course, a big part of your role, as you mentioned before, is developing all of these stories and in working with your CEO Satya Nadella. I’ve seen you two onstage doing demos, and exchanging some banter in the lock. It looks like a lot of fun for you. Is it fun?

Steve:                  

It’s great fun afterwards. It’s high stakes stuff in the moment. So, I don’t know if you, one of the demos I did with Satya probably about five years ago was the first large scale live demo we did of Skype translator at the Worldwide Partner Conference. And that was high risk, high reward, because it was very early days for that technology. And I can tell you the rehearsals the night before, didn’t go anywhere near as smoothly as the demo did on the day. We took a lot of risk, it was a live demo, there was nothing cooked up about it. It was incredibly high risk. And even when we started that demo, for the first 30 seconds, it didn’t really work very well. But then it kind of kicked in, and the technology, which is it’s phenomenal technology, it worked.

                               

And that is certainly one of the highlights of my career, partly that it worked, but also that I got the chance to do that on stage with Satya, and just working with him on it, we had a lot of fun with it on stage on that day. And huge testament to him as well that he was prepared to take the risk and show some of our believe, and edge technology was definitely a highlight afterwards.

Chris:                    

Was is the one where he went off script on you?

Steve:                  

That’s the one.

Chris:                    

Describe it.

Steve:                  

We talked about before, and I had said to him, “Hey, I think it would be…” And this is back to my point around storytelling is, I had told him the story about how when I first saw the technology, I knew it was going to change my life. Because I have, part of my family, my wife’s family’s Chinese, and I could see how it was going to allow us to break down these barriers between our families. And for my kids, to be able to speak to my grandmother in Chinese. And Satya would have me tell the story, and I suggested to him in the morning golf before the keynote, I said, “Hey, we’ll take a little bit more time.” I said, “But I think it might be worth telling that story. Just help keep some contact to the demo people are about to see.”

                               

And he was adamant, and he’s like you have to tell a story, because it really helps to set up why this technology is so important. And we could have done the demo without that story. But back to the my point around, we think a lot about storytelling in many different ways that we bring it to life, whether it’s demos, or written, or videos. And that proved out to be I think, in that case, a good example where story helped to create the context for that type of Demo.

Chris:                    

Absolutely. Because I’ve been doing my research on you for this interview. I’ve watched a lot of your videos, and when you’re saying, “I remember that event.” I’m thinking, I’m pretty sure I’ve seen it, but then as soon as I remembered that point about going off script and the story of your Chinese mother-in-law, I was like, that stuck in my head from that one. So, that resonated with me for sure.

Steve:                  

Yeah, it’s a power of story.

Chris:                    

What is your creative process with him, does he download his vision to you, and then you build the narrative and the individual elements that you need to bring to life?

Steve:                  

It’s different depending on what we’re doing. So, for something like ignite, or for that particular keynote, we have a number of different milestones where we check in with Satya, we get his input on what he thinks the most important topics we need to cover, we talk about what are the news announcements that we might have at any particular event. And then we go through an intuitive process with him around how do we bring that to life, both through slides, through talk track through visuals, and through demos. So, it’s a relatively small team, that’s a combination of my team, as a set of people that work closely with Satya, just ran his scripts, and things like that. And so, it’s a very collaborative process, I would say.

Chris:                    

I was at Ignite last month, and I watched the Minecraft Earth announcement, where you had Satya and others playing in like an augmented reality world, which was live on stage and it was great. And it really got me thinking about the massive effort that it takes to present a story like at all bring one of Satya’s kindness to life. What’s your thought process with that? And how are you building that story when potentially months out from the event, like you were saying before, there might still be gaps in the story in terms of the technology or the software?

Steve:                  

Yeah, there’s a lot of rigor and discipline that goes into that process. There’s a large team behind them, from everything, from production to scripting, to staging, to demos, to technology, and every demo we do as a backup. So, we basically build two versions of it, and we’ve built that, at least the demo portion of the team, we’ve built a lot of capability over the last five, and a half years to support such demos. And so, it takes a lot of rigor and discipline, we plan several months out, there are some things that end up on the cutting room floor, either because the technology is, it’s sometimes just too early to show the technology, but we do try, and we really do try and push the boundaries.

                               

If I look back at the last three build keynotes, we’ve done with Satya, we’ve put technologies in there that are very much on the bleeding edge of capability. And testament to him as well, that he’s up for doing that. But it’s a pretty rigorous process that in the two months, I would say, before any of those big keynotes, then I would say consumes at least 50% of my time, and then 100% of a whole group of other people’s time around production rehearsals. We do lots of rehearsals here in Seattle, we do on site rehearsals at the event. And so, it’s not unlike producing a movie, really.

Chris:                    

Yeah, it was pretty awesome. Absolutely. Look together, you and Satya, you’re doing more than telling stories. Now you’ve you’ve really transformed that Microsoft culture in recent times. Has the storytelling aspect been a catalyst for a lot of that change?

Steve:                  

I think it’s been an element of it, and look, it’s a whole group of people around the company, I’ll help them to do that this Satya, but there’s his leadership team, he was nominated as fortunes business person of the year, a couple of weeks ago. But even in non-story, it was the gentleman who wrote it Adam Lashinsky. Adam talked about, he’s got this great team of people around him. In this case, they talked about Brad Smith, who’s our president, chief legal officer. Amy Hood, who’s our chief financial officer. Kathleen Hogan, who’s our chief HR officer, and they’re just three of the people in Satya’s team that have helped to drive the change and tell the story. And so, it’s a big team sport, for sure. But I think it started five and a half years ago by saying, “Let’s redefine what the mission of this company is.”

                               

And we’ve done a lot of work around, using storytelling to help bring that to life, and to help with the journey, and the change of the company. But there are other things that have changed as well. It’s a very significant thing. So, we talk about this framework of systems, symbols, behaviors and storytelling, and my team has been involved in a lot of the storytelling, and in some of the symbols, but there are also systems that have changed that the company that have helped to change the culture as well. So, there’s a whole set of things that when you put them together into a big set of ingredients, then it works, and it has helped to significantly drive change. Any one of those things taken on their own would not have driven the level of change that we’ve seen at the company.

Chris:                    

I think you’re being quite humble there, but anyway, we are done with everything.

Steve:                  

Thank you.

Chris:                    

We’ve talked a lot about the winds you’ve had in your role. But let’s be honest, it hasn’t always been what we call beer and skittles, or a constant string of wins in your time. There have been some challenging times as well. So, I was not interested in those, how’s your approach to storytelling change when you might need to go into, maybe damage control, or maybe save face when a product isn’t that successful? Or when you don’t have that really nice, shiny, happy message to share?

Steve:                  

I think most of the time, there’s two answers I’ll give to that. One is that you sort of want to be able to recognize, and see those things before they’re going to happen. You can avoid the crash before it happens, and I think, on a personal level, I’ve gotten better at that, just through experience of knowing, if I think about a demo, there demos I’ve seen and I’m like, “Yeah, we really shouldn’t do this because as much as I want to have it on stage, it’s just not quite ready on the risk level is too high”. And so, there have been occasions where we’ve done that.

                               

But then, there are things that you, stories that do get out there. You go, “That’s not quite how we wanted it to happen.” And so, I think it’s, it’s less about damage control, and it’s more just about acknowledgement, and authenticity, and saying, “Hey, that didn’t quite work out.” Or whether it was that story, or that product, or that demo, and just being upfront about it, not trying to sweep it under the rug, because really, that’s what builds trust. It has being able to own up and acknowledge these things and say, “Sure, we made a mistake there, but, we’re going to change it.” And that, ultimately is what builds trust in the individual, and trust and the company.

Chris:                    

Yeah, perfect. Clearly, you’ve succeeded with art of storytelling, with the external audience from Microsoft. Have you seen similar success with your internal audience?

Steve:                  

I think we have, I think I would say about probably half of my team actually is focused on internal storytelling at the company, and a lot of that energy has been put into how do we help to support the culture change of the company. And so, that manifests itself in, we run our corporate intranet. And so, obviously that runs on SharePoint, it’s called MSW. And we [crosstalk 00:36:14].

Chris:                    

Do you own that channel completely?

Steve:                  

Yes. We program the content behind there, we run the platform, well we run the platform in conjunction with our IT team, but we certainly program all the content behind that. And then it has become much more over the last few years about storytelling, about how do we tell great stories inside of the company of things that are going on either inside, or outside of the company, and encourage your employees to become great ambassadors for the company, because they’re a huge asset for us in terms of being advocates externally about the company. And also a huge asset for us being able to attract new talents to come to the company. And so, we spend a lot of time here in internal storytelling. We have a monthly meeting that the entire company is invited to, that Satya hosts.

                               

It’s live streamed across the company using stream. That’s how it stood, its hard to be a Yammer, so we use all the, we use what would expect, we use all of our own technology in communications. And so, we do an awful lot of internal storytelling. One of the things I’m most proud of is we run an internal speaker series, where we invite external guests to come and speak to the company. And that’s been about it’s just one of the ingredients to help into drive culture changes, by saying, “Hey, let’s bring ideas from outside of the company into the company.”

                               

And so, just this week we had, Julie Andrews was on site here of the company. Obviously very famous from the sound of music and is an actor, she was hosted by Melinda Gates, they had a great conversation. A couple of weeks ago we had Will Smith, and Orleans here, we’ve had Chelsea Clinton here, we’ve had our, Questlove, we’ve had for Pharrel Williams, we’ve had Kylie Jenner.

Chris:                    

I thought you were about to involve me.

Steve:                  

I’m tempted, I don’t know if we can afford your keens. But we’ll take that one offline Chris to see if you’re available.

Chris:                    

I thought maybe, but then you start to go into those naïve, I thought, “No, no, they’re a little bit famous than I’m.”

Steve:                  

So we have a lot of fun with storytellers as well, we produce lots of different materials. I’m a big believer in physical storytelling. So, we just published a book. That’s more of an, we have an external story, that’s one of my favorite stories recently around three brothers who worked with Microsoft to help preserve, and actually sustain an African language that was falling into disrepair. And now with, work with them to encode their language into Windows and into office. And so, it’s a language is now actually growing. And so, we produce that as a digital story, but then we also produce a physical book, both in English, and in the language to that land to tell that story.

Chris:                    

That is awesome. When you talk about all these amazing bits, and pieces that you’re sort of piecing together the stories with, your surfacing that on a corporate internet, and you said that you own that. Do you feel like that, because that corporate internet are sort of failure, how does, in terms of technology fill that sort of maybe have some limitations with where you’re trying to go with your storytelling?

Steve:                  

No, I think there is sometimes a misguided view from people that you have to do all of your storytelling. Particularly internally, people are like, “What’s the channel we’re going to watch storytelling on? Is it the internet? Is it through stream? Is it through Yammer? And probably unsurprisingly, I’m going to say it’s all of them. Because some people are very, they want to use the internet, that’s their homepage for the company. And it has everything from stories about the company, to the menus, and the cafe, to maps of the campus. All these useful things. That it’s the way to search for documents, and assets across the entire internet. But to some people that’s their mode of alumni is to go to the internet, for other people and sometimes this can be divided across geographic lines. In some areas, people have more of an affinity for Yammer. It can also be divided across demographic lines.

                               

So, there’s more of a, I would say, the younger generation are more Yammer, or teams oriented, so you sort of have to do your storytelling everywhere, you have to, guess what I’m saying is you have to meet people where they are rather than assume they’re going to come to this single destination that you create.

Chris:                    

So, is the corporate internet still part of your vision for the future workplace do you think?

Steve:                  

Yeah, for sure. And it’s become a huge asset for us. In particular, around how we use it in combination with LinkedIn elevate. So, one of the things we put a lot of energy into over the last few months is to say how do we make the corporate internet a place people can go to get the news of the company, but then also to get the news of the company that we would like them to share outside of the company, so its a way to curate. We curate the content that we want people to amplify, and that curation is not done in a nefarious way. It’s to say, “Hey, here are set, there were lots of stories being told about Microsoft, here are some of the great stories that we would love you to share with your network. And we’re very transparent. The goal of that is to get people to consider Microsoft as a place of employment.”

                               

And even today, I got a report back from my team, every month now I get a report because I’m a very active on LinkedIn elevate broadcasting about the company. And I now get a report that tells me each month, how many job referrals have I been able to influence, and literally how many job hires have I been responsible for, because of the way that I’m amplifying news about the company externally.

Chris:                    

Oh, awesome. You mentioned Microsoft times a second ago. Do you feel like the rapid rise of Microsoft teams helps you in your work, or does it maybe hinder it, and how do you see that sort of playing out in your future strategy for this for these columns?

Steve:                  

It helps me massively, I would say initially, to be totally candid about it. It was another tool that I have to add to variety of communications tools I was using, primarily email, but then externally, I’m using Twitter, I’m using Facebook, I’m using LinkedIn, I’m using Instagram. And so, it was another tool to add, another bow, whatever the arrow to add to your quiver, I guess what I’m looking for.

                               

But as I become more and more familiar with teams, even earlier today, I was just talking with or demo team about how we are using that and much more rigorously allow us to, to put process around how we build these demos for Satya, because we bring together for every event we do, we end up bringing together a group of probably 30, 40, 50 people from a variety of different groups, from across the company for a period of about two months to collaborate on this single thing called Satya’s keynote.

                               

And then that team disposes, and so it’s become this vital tool for us to cut down on multiple different emails, updating people or a game of telephone tag. Now, we basically, we run the process of building these demos through teams, where everybody can check in, and see what’s the latest status on a particular demo, or a particular aspect of the demo. So, it’s become a vital part of the tool set for me.

Chris:                    

Fair. There are so many different elements to this, you’ve got different technologies, you got a whole bunch of different people, you’ve got different channels. Do you feel like you need to apply some kind of governance model internally for all of that, or you maybe worried that it might squash the creativity in terms of [crosstalk 00:43:32].

Steve:                  

I agree they would squash the creativity, I’m a little bit more of a believer and let 1000 flowers bloom, and we’ll see which one the bloom the most.

Chris:                    

I love that.

Steve:                  

I’m definitely much more of that that sort of approach.

Chris:                    

Fair enough. Now look, Steve, it’s just you and myself here right now, let’s let’s ignore the outside world. It’s a safe place. I just want you to let me in on the inside, what have you and Satya been discussing is mark sauce vision for the future workplace. Just us.

Steve:                  

I wish I could tell you how it’s like, come to our next conference. Come to the [inaudible 00:44:05].

Chris:                    

All right, maybe I’ll have to get that approved by the LiveTiles team. But we’ve really covered some great ground here today. But I want to leave you with just one last question. Firstly, thank you for your time, but then I’ll leave with this question. Modern communicators, what can they learn from your efforts of sharing stories at Microsoft?

Steve:                  

What can they learn? I would say, I go a little bit back to the things I said earlier, is that storytelling doesn’t really change. It stands the test of time, as a discipline. And the mediums, are the ways that it is expressed may change, but there’s still book that we created, this art and science of storytelling and it captured these five Ps of people, place, process, pictures and personal. And I really believe in those things that if you don’t need all five of those things to tell a great story, but at the end of the day, I think the most important one of those five pieces people, is that, I don’t think any great story was told without an individual, or a person, or group of people being involved in that.

                               

And so, I think in the environment we now live in where our attention is under attack. This is the reason I think storytelling is on the rise, and why there are 20,000 or however many of these people on LinkedIn who say they’re storytellers, is that we, it’s somewhat a reaction to the environment that we live in, that our attention is under attack, to the extent that by the time you arrive at your place of work every day, even if that’s your desk at home, you’ve been bombarded with things that are trying to capture your attention, emails, tweets, texts, Instagram, blog posts, radio, television, all of these things, asking for our attention.

                               

And many times they don’t have a story within them. And so, against that backdrop, that’s the reason why I think story and storytelling is sort of reemerged as a craft. Because the way that we can capture people’s attention, the reason that you can still remember that story about that Skype translate to demo from five years ago is because it was a story. It wasn’t something that was just clamoring for your attention for an ephemeral moment. It was something that was designed to hold your attention, and to capture your imagination.

Chris:                    

And what about the one piece of advice for people such as myself, who might like to follow in your footsteps, and increase the appeal of stories within the corporate world? And then maybe a spot to bad story tell themselves, “How we going to do it?”

Steve:                  

I don’t know if I’ve one piece of advice, but I’ll say a few things. One is always be curious, when people sometimes asked me what do I look for when we’re trying to hire people into this team? And I look for people who have a natural curiosity about the world that are compelled to go in and ask why, and to seek things out, to find the story behind things. So, that will be one thing as being curious. The second would be, just to write and to show, and I have this email that I send every Friday. It’s called the Friday thing. And I started it about 12 and a half years ago. So, I’m now on edition 650. Some think of the [inaudible 00:47:26], and every Friday, there’s a group of people who, it started out with 10 people who were in my team, and it’s now probably 500 people who, and it’s grown just through word of mail, is that people have sent the friends, and friends have written to me and said, “Can you add me to your distribution list?”

                               

And so, it’s become this way for me every week to force myself to do a piece of writing that will capture people’s attention, that I share. And sometimes all I do is I share a link to a great website I’ve seen, or to a great post I’ve seen, sometimes like last week, it was just a piece I wrote about, just a thoughtful piece around how we could be another company and some things that I’d learned. And so, I think this combination of being curious, writing is the heart of storytelling, and then being able to share things is that, knowledge isn’t power, knowledge is actually something that should be shared with people. And it’s certainly, I would say, possibly the one thing that has helped me most of my career is being able to share things I’ve learned with other people.

Chris:                    

That is great. Storytelling can be a huge production, or can be something as simple as an email to a bunch of friends. That’s awesome. Do you think we’re going to see more chief storytellers and companies in the future then?

Steve:                  

I hope so. But what I also hope is that people are the true it. True to what that actually means is that it’s not some faraway title. That means, that doesn’t really have any meaning. Like I genuinely hope it means that people are saying we are going to help people whose job it is, is to help tell the story of that company.

Chris:                    

And for anybody who needs inspiration around becoming a true storyteller, obviously, the Microsoft stories website is a great place to start. Because there’s some great content on there.

Steve:                  

Thank you. Yeah, I would say take a look at that, take a look at the handbook that’s on there that we talked about earlier. Both of those things are great places for inspiration.

Chris:                    

Love it. Well, Steve, thank you very much for your time today. You’re a busy man. So, I really appreciate this. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed our conversation. You are just a wealth of knowledge on this art of storytelling. So, thank you very much for your time.

Steve:                  

I appreciate it. And really good to chat with you.

Chris:                    

Cheers. Thanks for joining me on the Intelligent Workplace podcast brought to you by LiveTiles. If you have any feedback, or want to suggest a guest for a future show, email podcast@livetiles.nyc. Thanks for listening. I’ll catch you next time.

 

More Episodes

Under the hood of a global supply chain.

Have you been giving your credit card a bit of a work out with onlie shopping sprees during Covid? Did you ever stop and think about the complex distribution network that supports your online habit? I must admit that I didn’t, until I met Ahmed Javed, the Head of Marketing & Communications for EFL, a global supply chain company.

While many global businesses have been reducing operations during Covid, companies such as EFL may have never been busier. EFL may not be a household name (yet), but chances are they have distributed something to your home in the past. They have 60 offices in 25 countries and have been operating for 37 years!

The EFL story is one of complexity made simple by innovation, and it delivers a fascinating insight into an industry that many take for granted.

View Episode

Taking a creative view of a crisis: Leveraging the Creator Mindset.

Nir Bashan is a world-renowned creativity expert. He has taught thousands of leaders and individuals around the globe how to harness the power of creativity to improve profitability, increase sales, improve customer service and ultimately create more meaning in their work.
He has worked on numerous albums, movies, and advertisements with famous actors and musicians ranging from Rod Stewart to Woody Harrelson. His work on creativity has won a Clio Award and was nominated for an Emmy.
Nir is the founder and CEO of The Creator Mindset LLC, a company that conducts workshops, consulting, coaching, and keynote speeches at conferences and corporate events. His clients include AT&T, Microsoft, Ace Hardware, NFL Network, EA Sports, Suzuki, Activision and jetBlue

View Episode