Microsoft revamps storytelling for future when machines decide what content reaches people

Microsoft is fusing storytelling and user experience together in preparation for a future when machines will decide what content reaches a consumer.

It is a shift revolving around five core principles being taught to its staff in the hope of fostering a culture of ‘show over tell’. Content and product designs used to be created in silos but the company knows it has to think holistically about the entire experience if its bid to make people love its products is to become a reality.

Microsoft is in the second year of promoting how people use its products instead of the actual products, believing that the strategic switch will connect the dots between what it does and why it does it. The company is mindful that machines are increasingly making decisions for their users, which in turn means advertisers will need to be able to promote emotive messages through them.

“There are only a few years of lift of traditional storytelling,” according to James Whittaker, distinguished technical evangelist at Microsoft and its five principles are trying to get its storytelling and user experiences in-synch with how people consume content before they become irrelevant.

The first lesson is that the “concept will win the audience not the details”, of the mind that once you get people to buy into the concept then that’s when the details become relevant. Second, is remembering to “speak for an audience not at them", meaning that marketers and engineers have to be able to understand the value proposition on offer.

“Showing an audience how they think” not telling them how to think is the third lesson, while the fourth is to “find the moment you think the audience needs to be opted in and design your "story so that its powerful enough to make them do that”. Lastly, is concentrating on the value to the customer rather than “bragging about how great the product is”.

Whittaker added: “People don’t love features, they love stories”, and claimed that the company is hopeful the principles can make this mindset ever present internally. Instead of shouting about the capabilities of its products, Microsoft wants its marketing to tell people how its products change their lives, whether its how Xbox can make their lives more fun or how Office makes them more productive at work.

Microsoft is currently teaching “hundreds and hundreds” of staff these principles but plans to increase this to “thousands and thousands” throughout the year. Microsoft has struggled to connect with users in the same way as Apple or Facebook and believes the lessons will effectively turn all its engineers into marketers, while making the latter not just anticipate peoples’ behaviour but also shape it.

“If you can't tell a good story that means maybe your story doesn’t have a good story,” said Whittaker. “People don’t love features, they love stories.

“When everyone’s a storyteller your marketers are influenced by the stories that the engineers tell. The marketers and the engineers talk more because they have a common story to tell.”

It is an approach born from chief executive Satya Nadella’s transformation plan for Microsoft that includes building marketing into its products. It means creating products so that when someone uses one then it naturally leads them to another so that the services become the marketing.

Nadella, who replaced Steve Balmer last February, is trying to steer Microsoft away from the devices and services business toward becoming what he has claimed is the “productivity and platform company for the mobile-first and cloud-first world”.

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