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One of the oldest forms of human communication, storytelling predates the printed word, television, cinema and all forms of advertising. It is increasingly recognized as a leadership capability among CEOs, politicians, celebrities and global brands in their journey to better connect, inform and engage with stakeholders. More importantly, storytelling is a repeatable technique that can be learned. Microsoft Asia’s Senior Director of Communications Andrew Pickup shares how human stories can be told to have an impact

By Leon Lee

The ability to tell a good story is useful at any social setting. Whether it is to entertain friends or break the ice with strangers, a good story captures the attention of its audience and perhaps gets remembered to be retold to others. According to Andrew Pickup, Microsoft Asia’s Senior Director of Communications, storytelling has emerged as an essential skill for CEOs and business leaders.

At a recent AmCham event, Pickup reveals the role of telling a good story in promoting a brand, protecting the image of an establishment and defending the reputation of a corporation.

Breaking through

Storytelling is the oldest form of communication in human history, dating back to cave paintings of hands and animals. Today, the number of ways to tell a story and share an idea have increased dramatically, from the traditional forms of writing to radio broadcasting, from television to the Internet. Recent research shows that the average US consumer is exposed to over 250 marketing messages daily.

“Innovation in technology of recent years means that the volume, variety and velocity of information channels that are now globally available have exploded exponentially,” says Pickup. “So clearly, if you are a business leader trying to communicate with your key stakeholders – whether they are employees, customers, partners, suppliers, or regulators – a fundamental challenge is how to break through this clutter, this sheer cacophony of ‘white noise.’”

The answer is storytelling – it helps to bolster essential messages and ideas and to separate them from the usual corporate speak. Business leaders who are adept at storytelling can effectively use it to inspire employees or capture the imagination of stakeholders.

It is a subject which numerous academic research and books have covered while publications such as the Harvard Business Review, Financial Times and Forbes have all featured stories on genuine communications and authentic stories. At University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton Business School, it is a class offered in a module called “Leader as Storyteller.”

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As the channels and methods of communication have grown over the years, so has the sophistication of consumers. They have become more skeptical of public relations and corporate communications. However, with the right form of storytelling, it allows people to be more authentic and speak to the hearts and emotions of an audience.

“If you really want to get people to act, you have to appeal to the brain, but you also have to appeal to the heart. We’re all human at the end of the day. Just bombarding people with facts and figures is meaningless,” Pickup explains.

However, that is not to say that facts and figures are useless, he adds. Statistics and research all give credibility to the message that is being delivered. There is a need for both the rational and emotional in order to get people to act.

From Pickup’s perspective, it is meaningless to just bombard customers with numbers on the speed of processing rates or graphics cards. Instead, he believes there is a bigger likelihood of success by explaining to them, perhaps with a personal anecdote, how having quicker processing rates or graphics cards can be useful to their performances and businesses.

Microsoft Stories

Microsoft saw the value in stories about three years ago, and they subsequently launched a website dedicated to telling “Microsoft Stories.” The company took inspiration from the Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times article, Snow Fall: The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek – a long-form feature story on the fatal avalanche that seamlessly incorporated videos, voice recordings and interactive online elements into the story.

The company aspires to help reach out and touch the lives of billions of people through technology. To reach them, Pickup explains, Microsoft knew it needed to deconstruct the technology paradigm and make it easier for people to access it. Stories were the ideal way to break down that wall.

The company’s first story was 88 Acres which featured an employee named Darrell Smith who was in charge of ensuring all the facilities on the vast Microsoft campus ran smoothly, utilizing software and sensors to monitor and control conditions. The role of Smith was not the typical subject featured in an article, yet the story was well-received both within the organization and outside, as it perfectly showed the skills and dedication displayed by Smith and his team to do their jobs, with a focus on the people rather than the products themselves.

The Microsoft Stories website now has over 50 stories with a small, dedicated team of ex-journalists in the US producing the stories. There are in-depth articles on employees, customers and partners on their contributions or how the company’s products contribute in a positive way.

Storytelling played a huge role in 2014 when Microsoft announced the appointment of CEO Satya Nadella. The announcement was big news because of the size and reputation of the company and that Nadella was going to be just the third CEO in Microsoft’s 40 years of existence after Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer.

With the immense potential of interest in the announcement, the company wanted to control the narrative and share information in an innovative way. Therefore, rather than holding a press conference, they launched a website providing information on Nadella’s background of growing up and studying in India, his work at Microsoft and his personal interests in cricket and poetry.

Through the website, news agencies and publications were able to access photos of the new CEO, his email message to Microsoft employees, and videos from Gates and Ballmer explaining why Nadella was a good choice. The initiative provided journalists and reporters with everything they needed to write a story on his appointment; yet, it provided more through the new portal.

The company used the website and narratives to not just announce a change in leadership, but a change in culture as well – a company that was becoming more transparent and accessible.

A learned skill

Pickup has seen a greater level of awareness and interest in storytelling than ever before.

“I think this is partly because, these days, business leaders are far more knowledgeable and informed about the marketing & communication process than ever before,” he says. “They are also observing all sorts of figureheads – celebrities, politicians, activists, charities, and brands – using storytelling to communicate their messages and doing so with impact.”

However, there is a difference between great stories and great storytelling. Great stories are typically made up of four key elements – relevance to the audience with an emotional core in a simple and authentic way. Great storytelling is about “taking the audience on an emotional-laden journey.” And it must include incorporating context, introducing conflict or disruption, embarking on a transformational journey and then providing a resolution.

Just like any other skill, Pickup believes storytelling is something that can be learned.

“It is certainly true that some societies have a strong history and culture of storytelling. But storytelling is also a recognized technique – one that can be learnt, repeated and scaled to your business,” he says. “There are some common elements that are core to a great story and can be applied to commercial scenarios. The global center of storytelling is Hollywood, and there are certainly lessons and techniques from that industry that can be successfully applied to other industries and businesses.”

Recognizing and adapting the Hollywood process is one of Pickup’s secrets to telling a great story. One of the most commonly used process in moviemaking is called the hero’s journey – which starts off with an ordinary person with some flaws getting called to an adventure. The hero would initially refuse, until he or she meets a mentor who leads them on the adventure.

Through the journey, the “hero” will gain new skills, meet allies and encounter enemies, and will then overcome the challenge of fear to defeat the enemy. At the end, the hero has transformed to a better person because of the adventure – a classic journey featured in some of Hollywood’s most popular films such as Star WarsHarry Potter andThe Lord of the Rings.

Finding a hero is an essential part to telling a great story because every story needs one, but it is important to remember that not all heroes necessarily have to represent the typical strong and silent type. Another secret to great storytelling is images. In the past, newspapers were all text but today the most popular websites such as Buzzfeed are visually-oriented.

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For the announcement of appointment of Nadella, Microsoft provided media outlets with images featuring a new CEO not only in a typical suit or business attire but also wearing a much more casual sweatshirt which plays to the idea that the company is becoming more modern and progressive.

While something like attire might not seem to be a priority, details really matter in great storytelling. Details such as whether a speaker is speaking to an audience from atop a stage or on the same level are powerful as non-verbals signs evoke a different response from listeners.

When it comes to storytelling for a company, it needs to get to the why – why do they exist.

“For Microsoft, we sell Windows, Office, Xbox, etc. But that’s not why we exist. That does not inspire any employee to say, ‘I exist to licence Windows or Office,’” Pickup explains. “That’s just what we do and how we make money.”

“It has to be a higher echelon, an aspiration, for everybody. Whether you’re a small company or the largest corporation in the world, there has to be something emotional that really gets to the heart of the impact you are trying to have,” he says.

Lastly, when stories are conveyed in a personal way, it feels more authentic and makes it easier for an audience to relate. Storytelling will continue to have an impact in the future but on different plains, Pickup believes.

“As I have said, storytelling is the oldest form of communication known to mankind, so I do not believe that the fundamentals of a great story will change dramatically,” he says. “What will change are the platforms upon which these stories will be told which will be advanced through technology becoming cheaper, more accessible and more broadly available to all.”

“Longer-term, emerging technologies such as virtual reality, augmented reality, holographic computing and artificial intelligence will create newer, exciting storytelling opportunities,” he adds.