Mar 14, 2016 / by Michelle Dziuban

“We are bombarded with information. By the time you get to the office, you’ve been bombarded thousands of times. Billboards, people, advertisements, your friend, your boss. Our attention is constantly under attack. People are constantly trying to put information in front of us.”  

— Steve Clayton, Chief Storyteller, Microsoft

Targeting your audience with ads, coupons, magazines, commercials, etc., isn’t an option if you want to stand out. So, how do we promote our product/services and tie it back to the bottom line?

“It sounds obvious, but the real secret is this: Start with a great story,” Steve said at the Social Media Conference for PR, Marketing and Corporate Communications at Disney World last week.

Why stories?ragan-conference

At some point in our lives, every one of us has asked the question “Can you tell me a story?” or has said to someone “I have a story to tell you.” The human brain is hardwired to remember stories, not to recall facts or data.

Steve asked the audience a question: “‘When is the last time you went to dinner and said ‘Let me tell you about this data’? No one does that. They say ‘Let me tell you a story…’”

So, what makes a great story?

At Microsoft, Steve’s team doesn’t just put words on the website. They think about every single thing: the stage, the performance and the details.

The essence of great storytelling is taking the reader on a journey. “Entertain them. Fill the story with characters, texture and ups and downs. But don’t just tell any story. Tell a great story,” he says. “Take them on the Hero’s Journey.”

Which story sounds more interesting: one about the new Microsoft Kinect software or the energy levels in Microsoft’s corporate offices?

I would probably pick the Kinect story.

Not Steve. He thought the Kinect story sounded more compelling at first, too. But after spending an afternoon with the man who runs the Microsoft facilities department and learning about his unique, money-saving energy software, Clayton went with the energy story.

In the first 48 hours of going live, the story, 88 Acres, attracted 150,000 page views and more than 800,000 retweets. What’s more, several major industry sites ran the story, too, and within a week, governments and major retailers were asking how they could get the energy software.

Clayton created divided 88 Acres into chapters and sprinkled in short videos and strong imagery. When no media outlet wanted to run the story when Clayton initially pitched it, he and his team published it on Microsoft’s owned media channels, helping change Microsoft’s perception and increase sales.

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So, how do you do this with your brand?

“Seek out the story, tell it in a compelling nature and embrace the journey,” Clayton says.

Below, I’ve outlined the rules of storytelling, as shared by the storyteller guru himself.

The four P’s of storytelling

Steve’s team of storytellers use the four P’s to make a story great. If a story only has two or three of the four P’s, they won’t write it.

“If we’re going to tell a story about Xbox, we’re actually going to tell that story through the lens of a person, or through the process of how it came about or through the place where it was built,” he says.

  • People – The story needs to be about someone. If you’re launching a new product, tell a story from the perspective of someone that uses the product. Who are the unsung heroes at your company? Who are the people who have interesting jobs but don’t interact with the public? Tell their stories.
  • Places – If the story is about someone at your company or even about someone outside of your company, go to where they work and live. Paint a visual picture with words and images about where the story took place. Like the time Steve’s team flew to a village in Kenya to tell this story.
  • Process – We all remember the movement-focused video game console, Wii, right? About five or six years ago, it was tremendously popular among consumers. Microsoft wanted to create its own version, but they wanted to eliminate the controller altogether. Alex Kipman made it possible — Kinect was born.

Instead of just telling a story about the product, Microsoft told a story about the process it took to create it. The story included the ups and downs, tension and conflict of creating Kinect.

“Those are the kinds of stories that are fun to go and tell,” Steve says. “Ultimately, we’re talking about a product, but not really.”

  • Products – “If you have a product to sell, don’t just launch the product,” he says. Tell a story instead. Steve says that it’s important to remember that a good product does not make a good story. Know the difference between a product and a story.

So, how do you tell a story that doesn’t blatantly sell?

In late 2015, Microsoft rolled out Skype Translator. It had been a goal of Skype to break down language barriers and connect people all over the globe. Skype Translator introduced six voice languages‒English, French, German, Italian, Mandarin and Spanish‒and 50 messaging languages into the Skype for Windows desktop app.

Instead of telling people about the product, Steve Clayton took the stage at Microsoft’s Worldwide Partner Conference in 2014 and told a story about connecting with his friend in Germany. Check out Skype’s English-German translation in action in this live demo:

A few more storytelling tips…

  • Think visually.

“In the world of being bombarded with information the saying ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’, is really, really true,” Steve says.

All our lives we’ve been programmed to think visually, and even though there is no definitive replacement for the written word, we thrive on hearing a story. “In storytelling, every inch matters,” Steve says.

If you’re telling a story, invest in strong photography. Steve says it goes a long way. “Visuals and photography – my gosh, if you get them right, they are really remarkable. Poor images won’t get picked-up on covers of big newspapers.”

  • Sell your brand.

Rather than selling your product, Steve says to sell your brand. “We don’t sell Windows or Xbox (consoles). The job of my team is to sell Microsoft.”

  • Always be curious.

Clayton’s last tip was to be curious. “Look for stories where you don’t expect them,” he says. “We pass by them every single day. You never know what could come from asking a few questions and being curious.”


In one way or another, we’re all storytellers and willing consumers of stories. Don’t throw data and numbers in front of your target audience. Use your innate desire to tell stories and their desire for them to take your audience on an experience.

If you don’t, someone else will grab the attention of your audience.

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Images via Cision

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About Michelle Dziuban

Michelle Dziuban is the Social Media Manager for Cision, where she has worked since 2012. With a background in marketing and advertising, she loves keeping tabs on emerging industry trends. Most recently, she appeared on one of the most popular marketing podcasts in the world, Jay Baer’s Social Pros Podcast (How B2B’s Can Rock Facebook Live Video) and authored a byline on CMO.Com (What CMO’s Need to Know About Live-Streaming). In her free time, Michelle enjoys yoga, running and being outdoors. Find her on Twitter @dziubs.