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Lessons From Chucking Noodles With the Microsoft Stories Team

By Jennifer Warnick April 30th, 2014

At Contently, we’ve been huge fans of Microsoft Stories, the site launched by the tech giant late last year to tell engrossing, beautiful, longform narratives about the work going on inside the company. They’re all written by one incredibly prolific writer—Jennifer Warnick. We asked Warnick to take us inside the world of Microsoft Stories. She did not disappoint.

On a Monday morning in September, I was sitting across a table from my editor Steve Wiens. He was probably telling me for the umpteenth time how I need to watch The Wire. Or maybe I was singing him something from Waiting for Guffman. In walked our boss, Ben Tamblyn. He placed a white paper bag on the table, filled with Greek yogurt and pastries to fuel our story meeting.

“I will always provide breakfast when I make you meet this early,” he said.

We were there to discuss a potential story on The Garage, Microsoft’s startup space for employee invention. For years, employees had spent evenings and weekends at The Garage creating a little bit of everything—business-related or not. This could be a new feature or tool for an existing Microsoft product (like one that can detect whether you’ve forgotten to include an attachment in Outlook); a new app (like the one that will wake you up at your stop if you fall asleep on a bus or train); or something a little more tactile (like a remote-control metal volcano). We’d learned The Garage would soon be moving into a custom-built new location at Microsoft’s headquarters, and it seemed an ideal time to write about it.

It had been six months since I wrote “88 Acres: How Microsoft Quietly Built the City of the Future.” That piece—the topic, the concept, the design—was the brainchild of Steve Clayton, Microsoft’s chief storyteller. Like everyone else in our business, Clayton had been thoroughly inspired by “Snow Fall,” the New York Times’ game-changing multimedia opus. Unlike most everyone else, Clayton decided to do something with that inspiration.

This was still rather early on, before “Snow-Falling” became a verb to describe the production of compelling multimedia content. (As in: “We are going to Snow Fall the crap out of our next story!”) “88 Acres” told the story of a wily band of engineers at Microsoft who used math and a whole lot of ingenuity to create a game-changing, money-saving, energy-conserving software tool for building management. The whole thing was an exciting, seat-of-our-pants experiment to see whether a branded longform narrative dog would hunt. It did.

In its first 48 hours, “88 Acres” had roughly 150,000 page views and was picked up by mainstream tech press like Gizmodo and The Verge. Within a few weeks, representatives from a variety of worldwide companies, retailers, educational systems, and governments were calling Microsoft in search of the software detailed in the story.

This response is what led Clayton, a few months later, to create a new platform for stories about Microsoft and its people, products, and ideas.

And that’s how we three found ourselves in a room with Greek yogurt and an empty whiteboard, ready to kick off on one of our first brainstorming sessions as the new Microsoft Stories team, which would expand to include a deep roster of creative partners in design, photography, illustration, and more.

First, I should introduce you to my partners in not-crime.

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I have a lot in common with Wiens, my editor. We both like soup, and we both cut our teeth as scrappy newspaper reporters. Later, he worked at an advertising agency, where he learned to put those story skills to work for a brand in a way that respects the audience and gives them something of value rather than, as he puts it, “clobbering them over the head with a clumsy marketing message.” An unflappable, quietly bright and gentle man, he is a connoisseur of preppy sweaters and can access a startlingly broad internal catalog of rap lyrics at a moment’s notice.

Our boss, Tamblyn, is a cricket-loving Aussie who shunned caffeine years ago, yet still seems to have triple the energy (and North Face vest collection) of any average human. He’s been at Microsoft more than a decade and knows the company—and its vision and technology—inside and out. He has become the fearless, bold-yet-nurturing captain of our Stories ship, whether he’s helping us understand the deeper aspects of technology, connecting us with key sources, acting as our editorial gatekeeper, or explaining what our team does to the rest of the company.

I cracked my shiny new Moleskine to a page where I’d prepared a list with a few ideas for our Garage story. I had the now-familiar butterflies I always get in the early stages of a story-planning process—that time when a story is more inkling than anything, a seemingly impossible mystery waiting in vain for Benedict Cumberbatch to stride in and unravel it in a rapid-fire series of keen observations and flashy cutaways.

In the few hours we spent talking that morning, we unwittingly developed a process, a simpatico, a way of attacking these nebulous inklings. Our approach pairs an uncompromising devotion to storytelling fundamentals (like the ones practiced by the wizards at Pixar) with a sort of off-the-rails, no-holds-barred chucking of creative spaghetti noodles against a refrigerator to see what might stick.

In developing a story about The Garage, our team would inadvertently build a sort of garage of our own—a metaphorical storytelling shed for thinking and tinkering. For us, these were the noodles—the lessons—that stuck.

Noodle One: A good story is a good story is a good story. But is it a good story?

In reporting The Garage, we began with all of the big, existential questions you should: Are we certain there’s a story here—something with a beginning, an end, and a point? (A surprising number of story ideas don’t meet this first threshold.) Who are the main characters? Are they interesting? What kind of challenges or conflict do they encounter? And one of my favorites: Why should anyone outside of Microsoft care?

I’d done some initial reporting on The Garage—mostly wandering wide-eyed through maker fairs, hackathons and late-night coding and pizza parties—and I knew the place was flush with fascinating characters worth introducing to the outside world. I always felt out of my element at The Garage, to some degree, because I don’t know how to solder, work a laser cutter, code, or operate a 3D printer. At the same time, Garagers made me feel extraordinarily welcome, and were always completely generous with whatever they had to share—be it expertise, time, tools, snacks, or helpful hints (pro-tip: avoid laser cutting vinyl, which can contain chlorine, or you might produce vaporized hydrochloric acid).

Noodle Two: “Eureka!” can strike the same place twice.

On my visits to The Garage, I felt like an explorer who had parachuted into a remote province of some seriously fabulous geekdom, a place where an idea could be a sketch on a napkin one week, and an actual real-life thing the next.

“There are so many great characters at The Garage, and there’s just so much going on,” I said. “I feel like our readers will need some sort of, like… field guide to keep track of it all.”

My teammates, who had been listening intently and making notes, both looked up at once.

A field guide! Ding!

We were on to something. I told them about a book I’d read over the summer, The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet, that incorporated a fantastic narrative with lovely, field guide-like exhibits, maps and illustrations. We talked about the user-friendliness and data-richness of baseball cards, and the characters, color, and styling of Wes Anderson movies. We decided to structure our story in much the same way; we would create for our readers a field guide to The Garage that featured baseball cards of the major characters.

Soon, we were pulling together a Pinterest page of images that would inspire our story.

In every single subsequent brainstorming meeting I’ve had with these two, there has been at least one similar, almost-comical moment of snap-to “Eureka!” Luckily, the old fallacy about lightning never striking twice doesn’t apply to editorial brainstorms.

Noodle three: Embed… Or approximate the experience.

The devil may be in the details, but so are the really good stories. As such, we’ve made it a habit to “embed” whenever possible during our reporting and creative process.

While reporting on The Garage, we donned hard hats and walked through the construction zone of the space-in-progress. We were there the night it opened to enjoy the celebratory chaos of pizza, beer, cake, and quadrocopters. 

We were there the night it opened to enjoy the celebratory chaos of pizza, beer, cake, and quadrocopters. 

We dropped in now and again to check out events on its bustling calendar of science fairs, workshops, and speakers. We took the time to get to know the rhythm and soul of the place, and got to know its regulars.

As the narrative of our field guide started to come together, we finally had enough details to start our mini, illustrated profiles of some of The Garage’s most interesting geeks—our “geek baseball cards,” if you will. The idea to use illustrations instead of portraits came from our designers, and to make sure the designers had enough reference materials to work with, I gathered multiple photos of our subjects, and peppered them with questions like, “What do you carry in your pockets?” and “What’s in your bag?”

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“These may seem like strange interview questions, but we want to make a sort of detailed baseball card of you,” I told one man while attending an event at The Garage. He looked at me skeptically until the woman next to us leaned over and said, “You mean you want to, like, make Magic the Gathering cards of us?”

I smiled. “Yes. That. Even better.”

Due to the limits of budget or the space-time continuum, it’s not always possibly to fully “embed” while reporting a story, especially if you’re working on multiple stories at once. Take, for instance, the story we did on the 10-year anniversary of Skype—there was unfortunately not time (or Euros) for a reporting trip to Estonia. Instead, we tried to take readers there with colorful details gleaned from nearly two dozen interviews, and even a video of Skype employees braving the Millimallikas—a potent Estonian drink used to initiate new hires.

We worked under an even tighter deadline for a story on Microsoft’s new Cybercrime Center. There wasn’t time to do a stakeout and join experts as they unravel the identities and activities of cyber thieves and pirates. But we got lots of juicy details about past cases and used video and graphics to help explain the complicated world of cybercrime fighting.

Noodle Four: Follow the Golden Content Rule.

“No fun for the writer, no fun for the reader.”

If we had a motto, something to embroider on trucker hats, key chains, and hoodies, it would probably be a paraphrase of that too-true sentiment from novelist Donna Tartt.

You might say finding a creative approach to a story about uber-geeks and their after-work super lab is akin to shooting fish in a barrel. And you might be right. But this motto applies to all stories, not just those chock full of color and character from the get-go.

When I was a cub newspaper reporter in Upstate New York, being at the bottom of the newsroom food chain meant getting handed a lot of bum stories, but none more dreaded than the weather story. Heat wave, torrential downpour, a snowstorm—any and all variations in barometric pressure seemed to bring our editor out of his office. He would walk to our row of desks, eyes searching for a target, and assign a reporter to go out and talk to people on the street. About the weather. After pulling the short straw a few times, I decided to make it game. If I was stuck writing a weather story, I would try to make it the best weather story in the history of all weather stories—or at least make it something memorable in that day’s paper.

One afternoon, I was assigned to write about the first frost of the season. I started thinking (I’m sure only after some dramatic, put-upon sigh). Cold. Freezing. Snowflakes. Frost. Jack Frost. I pulled out the phone book. There was a Frost, Jack. I called the number listed, and after an awkward, fumbling introduction, I spoke to Mr. Jack Frost himself for nearly an hour. He was part of a tight-knit network of Jack Frosts from around the country who all know each other, who meet semi-regularly, and some of whom were once even flown out to the premiere of the movie of the same name starring Michael Keaton. I typed up Jack Frost’s story, including a few quotes from him about the cold snap, and boom—I had a decently interesting weather story. Relatively speaking.

If I were to describe our overall approach to storytelling, I’d say we live by the Content Golden Rule: “Content unto others as you would have them content unto you.” The buck starts and stops with us; we try not to create anything that we ourselves wouldn’t enjoy.

No fun for the Microsoft Stories team, no fun for the readers.

Jennifer Warnick is lead writer for Microsoft Stories, a platform for sharing in-depth, colorful stories about the company’s products, people, and ideas. She is a veteran storyteller with more than 13 years of reporting, writing, and editing experience, including as an award-winning journalist for daily newspapers in Washington, New York, and Idaho.

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Image by The Garage
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