Microsoft’s Chief Storyteller
A few years ago, Steve was working at the company’s offices in Reading. His job involved talking with startups and small tech companies based in London. Many of the people he met viewed Microsoft as dull and conservative. This clashed with Steve’s sense from within the company that a lot of his colleagues were actually doing some pretty cool and innovative things.
Steve set out on a personal quest to try to change perceptions of Microsoft by telling stories about his colleagues and their work on a blog. This eventually attracted the interest of the company’s senior communication management, who asked Steve to continue his work on storytelling from Microsoft’s global headquarters in Redmond, just outside Seattle.
Building on the success of the storytelling blog, Microsoft recently launched a new platform for longer form storytelling. The first story to feature on the platform – 88 Acres – describes how Microsoft engineers harnessed big data to boost energy efficiency and turn the company’s Redmond campus into a “smart city”. Steve’s team can demonstrate a return on the investment in storytelling, since the 88 Acres piece generated 300,000 page views, coverage in the technical press (eg Geekwire), extensive sharing on social media and new business.
Steve told me that, in his view, the basics of storytelling are pretty straightforward. The vital ingredients of a good story include:
- Characters (villains, as well as heroes)
- A journey
- Conflict and tension
At a time when the EU is searching for a “new narrative” that can help to engage people with the European project, I thought it would be interesting to ask Steve what advice he might have for us. He offered these tips:
- “Humanize” the organization by telling stories about real people
- Find heroes – “amazing people who are doing amazing work”
- Celebrate successes, but also be open about weaknesses and failures
- Appoint a chief storyteller and give that person pretty free license to roam the organization in search of good stories, and to share those stories publicly
I’ve also been able to spend some time at the University of Washington over the last few months with Hanson Hosein, Director of the University’s Communication Leadership Program and author of a great book titled “Storyteller Uprising”.
In Storyteller Uprising, Hanson recounts his own personal journey from NBC News war correspondent to documentary director to digital media educator and advisor. He goes on to share some useful advice about storytelling techniques and strategy.
For me, these are the biggest takeaways from the book and from talking with Hanson:
- All good stories need an “action idea” (a kind of mission statement that summarizes the main narrative and immediately evokes an emotional response)
- Storytelling in the digital age in some ways represents a return to folk culture, where stories were shared and retold (see this post from the Columbia Journalism Review about the “Gutenberg Parenthesis”, a theory linking digital media with forms of storytelling from the mediaeval and earlier periods)
- In this context, good stories should create engagement and a sense of community
- Given today’s highly fragmented media environment, organizations should aim to carry their story across a wide range of channels (see this post from the Flip the Media blog for more on transmedia storytelling)
- Storytelling changes organizations: “Any entity that seeks to integrate an authentic, trusted channel of communication, harvesting stories internally, producing them externally must be prepared for a degree of structural transformation … every employee or volunteer is a potential storyteller.”
Storytelling and the EU
There are already some good (although probably not sufficiently well known) examples of storytelling about the EU. Here are some of my personal favourites:
- The series of video testimonials we produced with European Social Fund beneficiaries when I was working in the European Commission’s employment and social affairs department.
- Stories from the field about EU humanitarian aid and civil protection shared on the European Commission’s ECHO Facebook Page.
- The EU Council at work videos showing all the effort and planning that goes into the organization of Council meetings.
- Videos presenting the amazing job done by the EU’s translators.
- The Europe 2025 project – an initiative by students from France, Germany and the UK to “reimagine, redesign and rethink” the EU
- The videos produced by young people on the meaning of European citizenship that were submitted in response to this year’s European Economic and Social Committee’s Annual Video Challenge
When I return to Brussels in a few weeks’ time, I’ll be on the lookout for opportunities to apply the storytelling ideas I’ve collected here during my fellowship. Like Steve Clayton’s experience with Microsoft, I have the impression that public perceptions of the EU sometimes overlook the “amazing people doing amazing work”, both inside and outside the institutions.
We can certainly do more to try to tell their stories. But I would also like to try to take a leaf out of Hanson’s book by searching for new ways of creating engagement and a sense of community around storytelling. This should include the development of more spaces for user-generated content where people can share their European experiences. The Europe-in-my-region photo competition that we are organizing again this summer is one modest example of this kind of visual, crowdsourced storytelling.
And I have also made a mental note to myself to try to avoid “sunshine rhetoric”, as a student memorably described one of the more rose-tinted EU documents I gave my class to read. As Steve Clayton put it when I spoke with him, “a victory march doesn’t make a good story”.
- Storyteller Uprising by Hanson Hosein
- Resonate by Nancy Duarte (This one was recommended to me by Steve Clayton. I’ve ordered it and downloaded a sample chapter, which looks good, but haven’t had a chance to read it yet.)
- The Seven Basic Plots: why we tell stories by Christopher Booker (I enjoyed reading this fascinating and extensive review of stories, from folk tales to great literature, which suggests there are a limited number of plots that resonate with human psychology.)