The 2012 publication of the New York Times multimedia story “Snow Fall,” about a deadly avalanche earlier that year in Steven Pass, Wash., was a watershed moment for Steve Clayton and Steve Wiens, two Microsoft employees looking to tell better stories about the innovations at their company.
“Snow Fall” won a Pulitzer Prize for its visually rich, interactive style that brought the reader into the swirling world of skiing and avalanches, so Clayton and Wiens, both part of Microsoft’s Story Labs, decided to do their own about a much less sexy subject: building maintenance.
“We shamelessly ripped off ‘Snow Fall,’” admitted Clayton, speaking at Seattle Interactive Conference.
The resulting story, “88 Acres”, is a 3,000-word feature laced with videos and slideshows that describes how Darrell Smith, Microsoft’s director of facilities, installed digital sensors to gather data for proactive building maintenance, saving the company millions of dollars. Published in 2013, “88 Acres” described a successful IoT application leveraging big data, several years before such topics were trendy.
“Forty-eight hours later it had a quarter of a million page views, but much more interestingly by the end of that week we had big-name customers phoning the Microsoft switchboard and saying please can I speak to Darrell – the hero of the story – to ask if they could buy 88 Acres,” recalled Clayton. “But 88 Acres was a story, it was not a product.”
That experience crystallized the value of storytelling as a corporate practice distinct from marketing.
“This set us out on a journey that helped us believe that we can create great stories that are not product advertisements but hold true to storytelling – they have heroes who have gone on a journey, who encounter conflict and tension — and we can build our own website to deliver the content out into the world that’s going to capture people’s attention and ultimately turn into real business for us at Microsoft,” said Clayton, who has the title of Microsoft’s “chief storyteller.”
In the case of “88 Acres,” Microsoft did ultimately develop their in-house building management system into a product, CityNext, for the emerging smart cities market.
Six years after Microsoft’s storytelling debut, the company released a digital storytelling handbook on Thursday to offer some lessons from its experience thus far, which ranges from a the Gimlet-backed podcast .future to the Xbox Adaptive Controller appearing in a Super Bowl ad to the viral sensation of the world’s quietest room to “Microsoft by the Numbers,” which turns the traditional “about” page on its head.
The new handbook is designed to offer tips on how to put together a corporate newsroom, generate content, write snappy headlines, and produce compelling video.
Clayton and Wiens summed up their storytelling philosophy as the 5Ps: Good stories are about people, take place into consideration, have compelling pictures, are personal, and are about platform. It’s a model that has inspired storytelling around wearable tech like Project Emma, to help stabilize motor control for people suffering from Parkinson’s Disease, and even led to the publication of a hardcover book to immortalize the efforts of two brothers from Guinea who created the first-ever written alphabet to preserve the Foulani language of West Africa.
Of Microsoft printing a book, Wiens said, “Sometimes low tech is the highest tech.”
Still, a print book is a rare offering from the Storytelling Lab, which has also invested in service journalism type offerings like the Explanimators video series on big topics in technology from artificial intelligence to quantum computing, part of the Lab’s effort to provide a public service beyond a focus on Microsoft’s own products.
“You’d be surprised how a scripted story about a sci-fi villain can help explain blockchain,” Wiens said.