5 ways Microsoft’s chief storyteller makes content more human

Storytelling has become a crucial strategy for communicators looking to attract attention from both employees and consumers. Consider this advice to improve your tales.

It’s never been harder to stand out from the crowd.

“Our attention is under attack,” says Steve Clayton, Microsoft’s chief storyteller and general manager of the company’s Innovation, Culture and Stories team. “By the time we start our workday, we’ve been bombarded with around 20 gigabytes of data.”

For Clayton—whose work includes everything from communicating benefits to 130,000 employees, to shooting a video, to create a holographic version of himself that speaks Chinese—the way to capture and keep attention is through storytelling.

However, not any story will do.

Clayton says:

As humans, we’re not predisposed to remember data. And data doesn’t often make for a great story. Thus, the answer is stories – we’re predisposed to consume, tell, embellish and retell stories and the more human interest those stories have, the more likely they are to break through the clutter trying to grab our attention every day.

Here five ways you can breathe life into your storytelling efforts:

1. Highlight the people driving your narratives.

To excel at human storytelling, you must focus on the people at the heart of your content.

“Without people, there really is no story,” Clayton says.

He continues:

Most great stories (think Hollywood movies) are about people who go on a journey than has ups, downs, challenges and transformation. That’s the classic approach to story—the so-called Hero’s Journey—and our imagination is captured by following this journey and a desire to know the outcome.

Center your story on people, but don’t forget additional elements that breathe life into your content, such as images and videos. Tailor your stories to both your audience and the channel, too.

“I also think about places (where is the story set), pictures (because visual storytelling is so powerful), and platform (or medium be it online, a book, a podcast etc.),” Clayton says.

2. Streamline internal and external storytelling with employee spotlights.

“We aim to make the internal story and the external story the same,” Clayton says. “In general, you want to ensure you’re telling the same story. Otherwise, you jeopardize authenticity.”

Aside from situations in which you’re restricted by confidentiality, the stories you share with your internal stakeholders should reflect your external storytelling efforts, and vice-versa.

You can unify your internal and external storytelling efforts by sharing your employee’s most powerful experiences. The best practice is displayed on MicrosoftLife.com, where readers are welcomed by a simple message:

Photo credit: Microsoft / Life

“This is the story of how memories lead to action,” the site proclaims, followed by stories of Microsoft employees’ efforts to reduce the effects of climate change. Each story is accompanied by a photo or video and a relatable memory.

There’s Phillip Hale, who grew up solving puzzles on and off the football field, which he channeled into a “Zero Waste” project to help others sort their trash. Sandhya Shahdeo shared how her love of fashion conflicted with harmful practices that went into making some of her clothing, inspiring her to volunteer for Fashion for Conservation.

Awa Diaw said she keeps the connection to her birthplace, Senegal, alive while living in New York City by making her own shea butter—a connection that grew when she went back for a visit.

Photo credit: Microsoft / Life

Each story is compelling because you’re able to peek into the employee’s life.

3. Drop the corporate speak.

“We tell stories about Microsoft employees with the outside world,” Clayton says. “They’re real stories about real people living their real lives.”

To achieve a similar emotional connection, drop the corporate messages and focus on what makes your employees—and your organization—relatable.

Clayton says:

The analogy I would offer here is stock photography—we all know it when we see it and we know it’s fake. We can’t let our stories be like stock photography—they have to be real.

4. Keep digging.

If coming up with story ideas is a challenge, think about what makes you click on headlines. It’s usually a promise to learn about something outside of the day-to-day grind.

Keep your eyes and ears open for unique or unusual details. Clayton suggests an interesting job title, out-of-the-ordinary workplace or a different background are “all signs of a great story.”

“Look out for the unexpected,” Clayton says.

Adopt the behavior and ask others to do the same to find even more stories.

Clayton says:

Act like an anthropologist—dig, dig and dig more. Find a person with a great story and then ask them 5 other people they know with great stories. And ask those 5 for five more.

5. Crowdsource story ideas.

Getting your workforce involved in storytelling efforts means you won’t have to constantly find compelling tales to share.

Clayton says:

When we published 88 Acres as a story, within weeks we had others in the company bringing great stories to us—yet until that point, nobody knew what to do with these stories or how to bring them to life. Once we showed the art of the possible, we unlocked a treasure trove of great stories waiting to be told.

Lead the way by finding and showcasing a few powerful tales and give your workforce a way to submit story ideas. A proof of concept combined with a streamlined submission process will persuade employees to take part in your storytelling mission, which will also increase internal engagement and external distribution.

“Show them what great storytelling looks like and you’ll be amazed at how quickly great stories find you,” Clayton says. “If you build it, they will come.”


One Response to “5 ways Microsoft’s chief storyteller makes content more human”

    Kay apinkerton says:

    Excellent ideas about the keys to powerful storytelling. Enabling employees to participate in telling their own story, too, enables a stronger, more united “family” and a happier “home.”

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