One day eight years ago, Microsoft Chief Storyteller Steve Clayton figured he was going to get fired. In his time at Microsoft he had moved up from a systems engineer to the Director, Cloud Strategy based in London. There was a Microsoft blog back then that covered what Microsoft brought to the world, but Clayton saw the chance to tell stories about what was unfolding inside the company. So he started doing just that as a hobby. He was a pretty honest judge and that fair and balanced approach attracted an audience, including some Microsoft Communications team members who would say, “What are you doing? You’re not the official spokesperson for the company.”
But nobody told Clayton to stop so he kept right on writing because he had a passion for it. Fast forward four years and Microsoft’s head of communications finally said “We need to talk about your blog.” “And that was the day I thought I was getting fired,” recalls Clayton. Instead, the head of communications complimented Clayton on all of his work and asked if he’d like to move from London to Seattle and tell stories about Microsoft in an official capacity.
“When I arrived in Seattle I didn’t have much of a clue about what I was supposed to do,” says Clayton. But it became clear that the job was to tell stories about the company that start to drive changing perception around this company.” To start, the public relations team asked Clayton what his title should be. “I said a blogger. I blog at Microsoft. And they said, well we can’t call you a blogger because everyone is a blogger,” remembers Clayton, “They said they’d call me chief storyteller...the title came by accident.”
Today, Clayton manages a 30-person team that is responsible for telling Microsoft’s culture story, which includes everything from highlighting internal culture innovations on the Microsoft Story Lab blog, to developing the company’s AI communications strategy, to building tech demos for CEO Satya Nadella. He recently spoke with 99U about how good stories can result in good business.
At corporations, storytelling has typically rolled up into marketing. What’s the difference between what you do as a chief storyteller and a marketer or someone in publications relations?
I’m not precious about the job title “chief storyteller,” but I’m precious about storytelling. I think it’s become a term that people want to hear and sometimes I see a great advertisement or media campaign and people say ‘oh that’s storytelling.’ I admire those creative executions, but I know that wasn’t storytelling. This is probably too binary of a definition, but I tend to think storytelling has people involved. When I think about the storytelling that I’m most proud of that we’ve done over the last few years, it’s been about how our technology impacted someone in the world and made a difference in their lives and is much more around people, than it is around products.
Give us an example of what that looks like.
Sure. Yeah, we started this platform about five years ago called Microsoft Stories and the first story we did was called “88 Acres”—the codename for Microsoft’s original campus in Redmond, Washington. We shamelessly copied The New York Times “Snowfall” story that had published a few months earlier and showed us all what longform storytelling on the web could be. “88 Acres” was a story about a guy who worked in a real estate and facilities department – not an obvious place for a compelling story
But someone in our real estate department told me he had a great story about the person who oversees the 125 buildings on the Microsoft campus. And I thought that doesn’t really have the hallmark of a great story. Buildings. But nonetheless I went and met Darrell, who in the year prior had helped to build this capability for all our of buildings to be integrated, so it became a bigger story about big data and the Internet of Things. It had the hallmarks of a good story: this central character Darrell who went on a journey, and had a breakthrough and was successful.
We pitched it to a few media outlets and they passed on it, so we published story ourselves told over multiple chapters and, even though we weren’t selling a software product in it, the story generated real business. We had customers who wrote us saying they wanted to buy the software. We didn’t even sell it as a product back then but we turned it into a product. In 3,000 words, there is one single sentence in the entire story that mentioned the product by name, yet the day after we had a very big name customer calling up and saying I want to buy that thing.
A couple of weeks after that we had another product team came to us and said, “Wow, we loved what you did with that story. We’d love to do a similar thing with our product.” And we said, “Well great, let’s tell a story, what are the central characters, what’s the journey?’ And they said, ‘No we just want to tell a really good story about this product.” And we said, ‘Yeah, we get that, but what’s the story?’. As I mentioned earlier, that’s the difference with storytelling – it really does need to be about people.
Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella visits a school in Kenya during the launch of Windows 10. Photo by Platon.
Another story you’ve done is Empowering Kenya and the World with High-Speed, Low-Cost Internet that explores how Microsoft has helped bring the Internet to rural Africa. How do you strike that balance between covering an idea that transcends Microsoft Corp. with highlighting the effort of Microsoft, which isn’t mentioned until the eight paragraph in the piece?
The balance is actually easy to find if you set aside the typical motives of telling a story about the company or product and tell the story about people and impact. Readers are smart—they know if it’s Microsoft telling the story there is going to be something about our involvement in it—which means we can put that in the background as it’s already in the back of their minds.
Whereas product success can be determined by, say, number of units sold in a certain amount of time, it can be trickier to articulate the value of stories, and creative endeavors more broadly. How do you convey the value of stories at Microsoft?
I don’t think there’s any clear answer. On the one hand you can say, ‘Yes, this piece had a million page views’ but that doesn’t really do it for me. We love to see people picking up the assets from our stories, our web videos and photography, and those being shared.
The other thing is a bit more fluffy: Does the story make me feel proud to work for the company? Is it likely that other people who in the company will feel proud to share that story in their professional networks. And so we do some measurements how these stories make people feel about our company—we don’t measure them on a story by story basis, but more so people saying, “That was a great story, I want to share it.”
So the value is the emotional connection with customers, not necessarily page views, conversions, and moving product units.
When I read a great story by a company, it doesn’t necessarily make me want to go buy their product right then. But it makes me feel better about the company because it shows they care about their craft, and creating something that is beautiful, so I start to assume that they put that same purpose into making their products.
I speak to lots of people at Microsoft who are in the business of selling our products. The job of my team is to sell Microsoft, and how does the work contribute to the brand of Microsoft and make people feel better about the company as a brand.
Companies typically have Chief Finance Officers or Chief Marketing Officer, but there are very few Chief Storytellers out there. With more and more brands starting to develop their own content, do you think we’ll see more Chief Storytellers?
I remember about three weeks into having this job title, Fortune Magazine got in touch with our PR agency and said, “Hey, you’ve got a guy called chief storyteller. We’d love to interview him because we’re doing this piece in the magazine around people who have impressive job titles.” When they published a few weeks later, but instead of it being interesting jobs titles, it was people with wacky job titles.
Then last week a friend of mine sent me a note that said someone on the BBC talked about how he just found out that Microsoft has this guy with the job title called chief storyteller and that seems liked a ridiculous job title.
Some people clearly think we don’t. But on the other hand, I did a piece on Cheddar TV last week, and they said they loved the job title. What it does is it gets people’s attention. I do think we’ll see more Chief Storytellers as we move into the era of brands and companies talking about their mission and purpose—purpose over product. They will be inclined to take on more of their own storytelling.
Matt McCue is the former editor of 99U. He lives in New York City, but he is willing to travel long distances for a good meal. Find him on Twitter at @mattmccuewriter.