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April 25, 2017

Storytelling Close-up: How Microsoft Opened a New Chapter

"I was looking for another way to tell stories."

He is the one who usually asks questions and writes stories. But today he sits on the other side: Steve Wiens is the managing editor of Microsoft Story Labs. Since April 2013, he and his co-member Thomas Kohnstamm have built up one of the best brand storytelling websites, in our view. The interactive and visually unique articles, podcasts, cartoons and even physical books are less about the Microsoft products, but rather addressing the vision and motivation of the people behind it.

Whether books, rap music or the future of digital storytelling, with Steve you feel immediately comfortable and could spend hours philosophizing. This also explains why he is so successful in tickling all these wonderful stories out of his colleagues. But before he became Managing Editor at one of the biggest technology companies, he went through his little personal journey to get where he now stands. A look into the world of Steve Wiens reveals why he was the right man to start the new era of digital brand storytelling at Microsoft.

The Roots: A passion for journalism from the cradle

People walking around hectically, phones rattling loudly and clattering keyboards: Steve Wiens grew up between the journalistic ongoing at the news desk his father worked for and the big, heavy press machine. He stems from a family of journalists. His parents have been writers, just as his grandparents were. Steve always wanted to follow this family tradition. “I just loved the atmosphere of how journalists were chasing the next story, diving into the worlds of all these different people to tell their stories. For me it was just the coolest way to earn a living,” Steve explains with a rousing laugh.

The Family Newspaper


nature lover and passionate runner

After his family moved from the suburbs near Los Angeles, the passionate runner grew up in the northwest of the United States. Like many other children at his age, Steve could never sit still. Together with his brother, he roamed around the neighbourhood, constantly searching for new adventures. To this day, he is still drawn to go out into the woods. Running is now a part of his life. The Microsoft campus is located directly at a dense wooded area in Seattle, Washington, surrounded by large old pines and many hiking trails. “Every time my body is focused on walking or running, my head has the space to think about problems and ideas. This is my meditation.” He also retains this routine during his hectic life as an editor of Microsoft Story Labs. Between meetings and appointments he takes his running shoes and dives into nature.

On the quest: A new way to tell stories

“I had no choice. I simply had to become a journalist,” Steve explains, when he talks about his families’ tradition. That’s the reason why he decided to study journalism at Western Washington University. His resume follows the classic journey of an editor. During high school and college he did several internships at a news desk. From the very writing was his passion. Steve Wiens was the perfect journalist.

“It was my plan to go into journalism. But when I graduated from university, I looked around and had to face a different situation. At the beginning of 2005 the financial crisis crushed the industry. Jobs began to fade, revenues broke away. At the same time, there was this resistance to the new experimental digital world.” Steve felt drawn to the digital marketing side and wanted to find out what was behind it. “I was looking for another way to tell stories.”

Get Creative

 

This was the point at which he decided to take a different road. In 2007, with his first job at BEET, Microsoft’s in-house branded entertainment agency, he started his first steps into digital marketing. “It was a really exciting time. From a creative perspective, I faced a lot of new challenges, which I enjoyed,” Steve recaps. For the first time, he worked with budgets he had never seen before and dived deeper into the spheres of video production. “When I entered the digital marketing world, I had the traditional editorial knowledge i n my baggage. I knew how to write. I knew how to edit. I knew how to find a story and how to pitch it. I already knew a bit about how to photograph and make videos.” At this station of his journey, Steve refined his visual skills. This helped him later on his biggest professional project until then.

Emerging out of the crisis: The birth of Microsoft Story Labs

After four years at the digital agency BEET, Steve’s journey continued deeper into the corporate world. When he joined the Microsoft brand communications team in 2012, he began to create stories on behalf of the company for the first time. But he had to face a new challenge. Microsoft just released Windows 8 and the press coverage was extremely critical. “We had great difficulties showing the Microsoft we saw,” Steve remembers. They needed a solution to master this communicative crisis. On the campus of the technology company have been many interesting, yet undiscovered stories of the people who worked there: Adventures all employees of Microsoft faced every single day by constantly creating new and creative solutions. Those were the kind of stories Steve and his team wanted to tell and which he was able to discover with his journalistic background.

The Microsoft Story Labs team is growing. Thomas Kohnstamm is one of the main editors.

This is how the first story, 88 acres, came into being. The protagonist was Darrell Smith, the Director for Facilities & Energy. The plans for Microsoft’s campus were to become more energy-efficient. To measure the energy consumption, his task was to rehabilitate all the buildings on the Microsoft campus by using heavy-duty attachments worth millions. Darrell, however, had a different plan. In his spare time he developed software that could combine all these functions without the need for a complex upgrade. This could save the company millions of dollars. When the team and Steve heard about it, they immediately recognized a great story in it: “We found a humble, straightforward hero who has done something incredible by not having gone the easy way.”

What makes a great story?

 

With this first story of Darrell, Microsoft Stories was born in 2013. A new era of Microsoft’s corporate communications began. Today, journalists and businesses, as well as social influencers, YouTube stars, gaming bloggers, designers, job candidates and many more follow the stories of Microsoft Story Labs. What makes the website so special is the way Steve and his team are presenting the long and detailed visual portraits. Each story has its own special style and reflects the individuality of the company’s many characters. It was a whole new way of digital brand communication. Since then, the image of Microsoft has completely changed and the press is reviewing product launches of the company in a more positive light.

A spark ignites: The Storytelling DNA spreads

His journey turned Steve Wiens into the perfect founder of Microsoft Stories. Through his journalistic training, he learned the traditional approach to discover, write and prepare stories. His experience at the digital agency BEET helped him to use new digital trends to enhance his stories with visual and audio-visual tools. With this combination, he filled a gap that had prevailed at Microsoft so far: Moving away from product communication towards people and their individual ambitions. “I think, all the stories were already there. I just got to Microsoft at the right time,” Steve says modestly. The first articles encouraged his Microsoft colleagues to venture new storytelling projects. “Every day, I see how storytelling becomes more and more the DNA of Microsoft. This is a really fantastic experience,” the storyteller rejoices. His family supported him on his new adventure. “For my father it was very exciting to see what I did at Microsoft. He realized that at the core it was storytelling and similar to the journalistic approach. Today he has also discovered new digital skills for himself. Now he tweets and records podcasts. This is really cool to see.”

Meanwhile, the Microsoft Story team has changed their name into Microsoft Story Labs. The name is a metaphor for their goal: Constantly experimenting with different formats, unknown approaches and creative ideas to tell surprising and unique stories. They are currently working with new digital storytelling tools, such as 360 degree videos. “One of the things I love about my work at Microsoft is that the well of stories never dries up. There is always something to explore.”

The Next Thing
Author: Ciani-Sophia Hoeder

Whether in the form of books, online texts or visual content, Ciani is always on the lookout for exciting stories. Born in Berlin, she studied journalism in her hometown and moved to London for her master’s degree in political communication in the British, irresistible, creative hub. Since July 2015, she has been part of Mashup Communications.

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Ciani-Sophia Hoeder