The Unlikely Story of Microsoft’s Chief Storyteller

In 2010, an Englishman named Steve Clayton was recruited to take on a brand-new role at Microsoft: Chief Storyteller. At the time, Microsoft was not a company with a great story to tell. And Clayton was hardly the obvious choice for the job. But much has changed in the intervening eight years. Microsoft has reemerged as one of the world’s essential technology leaders. And its corporate storytelling is now among the most innovative in any industry, thanks in large part to the work of Clayton and the people he leads and works with.

Steve was kind enough to meet with me recently to discuss storytelling at Microsoft, and all that he’s learned in his tenure as the company’s storytelling leader during a time of profound transformation. Here are some highlights of our conversation:

You were hired as Microsoft’s first “Chief Storyteller” eight years ago. How did that happen?

I certainly wasn't looking for the job. The job found me. At the time, I was working for Microsoft in London, and my background was not in journalism. I studied computing at university in the UK and joined Microsoft as what we used to call a Systems Engineer – basically a technical sales guy. I also was sort of a hobbyist blogger at the time. Microsoft had an official blog, but this was separate, and I was not an official spokesperson of the company. I just wanted to speak authentically about what I was seeing – the good and the sometimes not so good. Eight years ago it was a very different company and, as all good blogs do, I was honest and at times critical of things where I thought we could do better.

One day, I got a phone call from a guy called Frank Shaw (Corporate VP of Communications at Microsoft), and he said, “I want to talk to you about your blog.” I thought it was going to be a phone call to say: You’re fired because of your blog. But it wasn't. It was, in fact, the exact opposite. It was an offer to move my family 5,000 miles from London to Seattle. His idea was that, instead of continuing to hire traditional communications professionals into the communications function, what if we hire a passionate evangelist for the company? He had seen that in what I was doing, and he said: Let's turn that into a full-time job. It was pretty big risk on his part.

Steve Clayton, Chief Storyteller, Microsoft

Steve Clayton, Chief Storyteller, Microsoft

What were your first responsibilities in the new role?

Well, not too long after I took the job, there was an Op Ed in the New York Times by an ex-Microsoft executive that basically said Microsoft couldn't innovate its way out of a paper bag. And whilst that wasn't exactly right, there were elements of truth to that for sure. My job was to figure out how to counter that message.

I remember the first few days, I thought: I'm a total fraud and an impostor here – I have no idea what I'm doing. I know how to tell great stories, or I think I do, but I don't know where to find them. And so, I set out on a sort of archaeological expedition of Microsoft. I did a series of 20 or 30 interviews – figuring that, well, I'll just go find interesting people and see if stories of real innovation would illuminate themselves to me. And ultimately, they did.

So, no real problems or challenges for you then?

Not really – everything has just been a remarkable success story. [Laughs] No, there were plenty. The first one was about three months into the job, and it led me to really question whether I should have even made the move.

I'd written a set of stories that I wanted to go and tell on our blog. Not being a PR guy, I was surprised when I was guided to run all these pieces past our legal department and PR department, like a press release. That was incredibly frustrating for me, because I came from this world where I would write my blog post, hit “publish” and be damned. It was a real struggle – to the point where I met with my manager and said, “Hey, I think I made a huge mistake here. I thought I had at least some degree of freedom to be able to write and publish in the same way I had previously.” And fortunately for me his response was, “Yeah, you do have that freedom.” He said, “Ignore the people who are asking you to do all those review processes and just hit publish.” That was extremely rewarding, to get that level of air cover. It freed me to go and do what I wanted to do. And I think, looking back, it was successful.

How do you describe what you do today as Microsoft’s Chief Storyteller?

For me personally, the goal has always been around shifting the perception of what I think is one of the most important companies on the planet right now, at an important time – a company that has a meaningful role to play not just in the technology industry but in all of society. How do we help people understand who we are, what we do, and why we exist?

Eight years ago, this was a very different company with different products and a different perception in the marketplace. But Microsoft has rediscovered its soul. A little over four years ago, we created a new mission statement, which is, “To empower every person and organization on the planet to achieve more.” That statement hasn’t changed since, and I don't expect it will change within the next five years, because it's become this incredible North Star, or rallying call, or whatever you want to call it. It’s changed how we think inside of the company. And it's what lies at the heart of the storytelling we do.

For many people, that became clear during the Super Bowl, when Microsoft aired what many believed was the best commercial of the day. It was a story featuring a group of kids with physical disabilities and a product called the Xbox Adaptive Controller. How did that come about?

One thing that makes me so enthusiastic about our storytelling now is that we get to tell stories about the purpose and the passion of the company. You know, in years gone by, our holiday ads might have just showcased our products and where you could go and buy them. And we still do those ads for sure; we have beautiful ads for Surface and Xbox. But now we have a set of stories we tell as a company that illuminate that mission statement I talked about. That Super Bowl ad, while it contains a product, it’s focused around the impact that the product has had on the lives of these young people who love to play games and just happen to have disabilities.

Advertising is just one form of corporate storytelling. What are the other different ways that Microsoft is doing effective storytelling?

We now have a large team – about 35 people – focused on storytelling, and who I now have the fun and the pleasure of working with. They do a wide range of things.

We have a site called Microsoft Stories, which has revolutionized what we used to call Press Pass. We no longer just crank out press releases. We now deliver very in-depth feature stories about people and projects on a daily basis, and those are produced by a group of very talented people, many of them ex-journalists. Along with that, we have a site called “Story Labs,” which pushes the boundaries of our storytelling, whether it's the podcast we did last year called “.Future,” or a set of animated stories we’re doing called “Explanimators.” We test and play with lots of different formats.

Another part of our team supports our CEO on stage any time there’s a technical demonstration or product demo. We've done some fairly epic product demos over the last few years. I had the pleasure of doing one with Satya Nadella in front of 20,000 people, using Skype Translator for a real-time conversation between English and German. It was incredibly high risk, but it was effective in how it told the story of the technology through the lens of personal experience. That’s storytelling to us.

Demoing Skype Translator with Melanie Schoebel at the Microsoft Worldwide Partner Conference 2014.

Demoing Skype Translator with Melanie Schoebel at the Microsoft Worldwide Partner Conference 2014.

We have another part of the team that has built out a property called “Microsoft Life,” and that’s focused around how we talk to candidates or potential candidates who might want to come and work at Microsoft. Years ago, we had a very functional “jobs blog” that helped people apply for a job at Microsoft. But now it’s completely different – I would almost call it a lifestyle marketing effort. It’s focused on helping people see what it's like to be a part of this company.

Another part of our team manages all of our employee communications, which includes our corporate intranet, as well as doing a monthly “Town Hall” live event with our CEO.

And we’re building a new capability that we call “Modern Journalism,” which focuses on helping media companies use our technology to tell their own stories. For example, recently here in Seattle we worked with KING-5 News and helped them tell stories using data with a Microsoft product called Power BI, which they've had huge success with.

How do you measure the value of storytelling to the company?

The question makes me squirm in my seat a little bit, because it's a hard thing for me to put my finger on. My gut reaction in a way is to say, well, what happens if we don’t do it?

I was just talking about this with a new starter on our team. We were wondering: Is it possible to measure or track whether a person who reads a story on our site ultimately goes to the Microsoft store and buys a product? Frankly, what we're much more interested in is: How do we continue to change the sentiment of the company with the audiences we care about? And ultimately those audiences span everybody on the planet.

This is not something that you measure in a one-year period. You know, people typically say, “What are we going to have achieved with the storyteller mission after a year? And if we haven't achieved it, we're not going to carry on doing it.” But success in storytelling doesn’t happen in a year. 

It takes a kind leap of faith to say: “We understand what storytelling is, we think it’s important, and we’re not going to subject it to the same measures that we would apply to other marketing functions.” I'm very fortunate that I've got that kind of enlightened management.

Would you advise that other companies hire a Chief Storyteller?

I had this exact question about a month ago from a friend, an ex-Microsoft guy, who works at a company in Seattle. They were thinking about setting up a similar function. And I asked him two questions. First: Who's the audience or audiences you're trying to reach and what is it that you trying to tell them?  And second: What is the mission of your company?

And in this particular instance, the company didn't seem to have a mission statement. They certainly didn't have a single one. And so my advice to them was to focus on defining what is it that they stand for. And the reason for that is based on the learning I've had over the last few years, which is that the source of our greatest storytelling is around helping people understand the purpose of the company. Once you're very clear on that and you're clear on who the audience is, then you're kind of off to the races and there's probably good reason to invest in storytelling. I think it’s hard to do it without that.

If you’re not doing something at least once a year that almost gets you fired, then you’re not trying hard enough.

What is the future of storytelling for you and Microsoft?

I think our future is simply to continue to take risks. How do we push ourselves so that the sum of our work is greater than the individual parts?

I have a phrase that I’ve said to my team over the last eight years, which is that if you're not doing something at least once a year that almost gets you fired, then you're not trying hard enough. And I genuinely believe in that. Some of the things that have gotten me very close to getting fired are the ones that have led to our greatest successes and opportunities for the company.

Some people would have you believe that the future of storytelling is all about virtual reality. And there's no question that virtual reality will be an important medium. But so will books. And so will videos, and so will newspapers, and websites, and podcasts. As I think about how we hone the discipline of finding and telling great stories, it's less about us chasing the latest bright shiny object and more about continuing to capture people's imagination with the stories we tell and how we tell them.

The technology is always going to change. But storytelling? In my opinion, it is never going to change.