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Microsoft Steps Up Its Storytelling Game with ’88 Acres’

Relying on others to tell your story can be perilous, but if you are a big company, the validation provided by a well-researched report in the independent press is worth the risk of being misunderstood or taken out of context.

And yet companies have access to deeper levels of stories than the distracted media will often make time for.

Even President Obama has extolled his preference for self-publishing  in a light-hearted way  at his 2013 White House Correspondents’ Dinner Speech. “Recently, though, I found a new favorite source for political news  these guys are great,” he enthused. “I think everybody here should check it out, they tell it like it is. It’s called whitehouse.gov. (Laughter.) I cannot get enough of it.”

Microsoft has a different problem than the president. The press has, by turns, compared them unfavorably to Apple and to their own former glory, but also, in large measure, ignored them. So what is Steve Clayton, creative director and Microsoft storyteller, to do? Tell stories, of course.

Clayton just launched a website, microsoft.com/stories, for long-form story telling. Its first offering is an in-depth exploration of the company’s approach to building technology, titled “88 Acres.” The title refers to Microsoft’s original building plan, which stands in contrast to its current 500-acre headquarters, comprising 125 buildings. It turns out that over the past five years, Darrell Smith, director of facilities and energy at Microsoft has been on a mission to make those buildings smarter.

“Every great story has a hero and as soon as I met Darrell Smith, I knew he had to be the focal point.”

Like energy conservation itself, the patience and long-term thinking required to make smart buildings a success also mitigates against it feeling particularly newsworthy in a traditional sense. Clayton has overseen the Microsoft News Center and used his own blog, Next at Microsoft, to “curate stories from across the company and share an insider’s view of our people, products and places in a more conversational way.”

But he realized that, “There is a whole other set of really interesting stories across the company that aren’t necessarily news, but we think are just good stories that our customers will be interested in.”

The inspiration, quite literally, for the new initiative was John Branch’s “Snowfall,” about an avalanche in Washington State’s Cascade Mountains, published online last year as a special project for The New York Times. Clayton was struck by “both the incredible narrative … and the stunning visual presentation of that story.” He liked the bold use of full-screen photographs that slide away as you scroll the text and the inventive ways that videos and slideshows were embedded in the presentation.

Clayton thought, “there are some great stories here at Microsoft that we could put together in a similar way,” that would go beyond the press releases and blog posts they have been producing.

Being the company’s “resident storyteller” give him license to roam the halls of those 125 buildings looking for interesting people with compelling stories. When someone tipped him off that building engineers in the Redmond Operations Center  “The ROC”  were up to some interesting stuff, he sensed that, “This is just the first story of many more to come.”

“Give me a lot of data and I’ll save the world.”

“Every great story has a hero and as soon as I met Darrell Smith, I knew he had to be the focal point,” of this story, Clayton said. Smith is as passionate an engineer as you will ever meet and his enthusiasm has created a very cohesive team.

“Give me a little data and I’ll tell you a little,” Smith says. “Give me a lot of data and I’ll save the world.” He has not only helped the company save a lot of money and conserve a lot of energy  he is turning smart building technology into a product for Microsoft to sell. From a business perspective, that alone makes it a good story.

Microsoft has told this story before, in a 2011 white paper in collaboration with Accenture and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory research scientist Jessica Granderson. But that presentation was really focused on building owners, operators and IT decision makers, which Clayton found limiting. “Our audience for this story was much broader and it was really intended to be interesting content for all of our customers  from consumers to tech enthusiasts to CIOs and IT professionals.”

This is complicated subject matter, so finding the correct technical level for this content was a challenge.

“Big Data and the Internet of Things can be pretty technical. We focused on avoiding highly technical language and incorporated a lot of visuals,” he said. “For example, we created an infographic that helped get across the technical details of the smart buildings solution in a simple, visual way.”

Telling your own stories has some perils too. Journalists have the benefit of distance and tend to have an intuitive sense of their audience. In the case of this kind of technology story, the potential audiences have a wide range of knowledge and expectations of specificity.

A quick glance at the comments on the “88 Acres” story from Y Combinator’s Hacker News indicates the pitfalls of underwhelming the geeks.

In the end, Microsoft has the right idea  Darrell Smith and his legion of efficiency engineers are a hopeful sign for the future of the company and the planet, but it may not have found the right form. Neither the prose nor the photography of “88 Acres” is as compelling as “Snowfall,” but they don’t need to be to be as successful either.

Clayton has a good story to tell, but not one as immersive as the tale of a female backcountry skier saved in an avalanche by her recently purchased airbag. The deliberateness of the format — appropriate to the snow drift — feels cumbersome in the context of engineering.

Image by Microsoft
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