Unbabel Podcast: Steve Clayton and the power of stories

April 9, 2020

Steve Clayton got one of the coolest job titles in the tech industry when he became Chief Storyteller at Microsoft. His passion for storytelling dates back to his childhood in Liverpool, and it has led him through an unlikely series of events that ended up refreshing the image of the tech giant.

At Microsoft, Steve channeled his inner pirate to navigate being a storyteller in a company whose story everyone already thought they knew. After putting a PC in every home, it was time for Microsoft to prove it could sit with the cool kids, like Apple or Google. Steve was part of the wave of change, which turned Microsoft into a more sustainable company, with such a diverse portafolio of products that it makes you forget all about Word.

In the third episode of the Unbabel Podcast, we asked Steve about how stories became his job, and what it was like to work alongside some of the most influential leaders in tech. Then, we discover why he thinks storytelling is more than a PR ploy, and dig in deep on why he believes that every company should have a storytelling strategy.

Let us know your feedback, questions, and suggestions at podcast@stagingunbabel.wpengine.com. You can subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, or your favorite podcast app to get these episodes as soon as they come out!

The following is a lightly edited transcript of the interview.

Fernando: Hi Steve, welcome to the podcast. Thank you so much for sharing some time with us. Chief Storyteller, it’s a job title that can raise a lot of eyebrows. However, when I see it followed by at Microsoft, I’m sure that you’re the real deal and that’s your team as a strategic role in the business. My first question is, what is the mission of your team?

Steve: Well, first of all, let me start by saying it’s great to be here. I appreciate the invitation to talk to you. You know, I always appreciate the chance to talk about storytelling. So I would say very simply, the mission of the team is to tell stories inside and outside of Microsoft that help people understand Microsoft as a company better. It’s a very large organization, 150,000 people. And you know, was involved in many different businesses and commercial businesses and consumer businesses. And so lots of people have perhaps a story about Microsoft. And our job is to help them understand the full extent of Microsoft, who we all, what we do. You know, what is our place in the world and what is our mission as a company?

Fernando: So going back to the start now, 20 years in the past, there’s a couple of stories that you probably told many, many times, but there’s really no way around it. And it’s how you got your first job at Microsoft around 20 years ago and later how you were invited to lead the storytelling team.

So can you briefly walk us through those two defining moments in your career. 

Steve: Yeah. The first one was a case of mistaken identity. And so I used to work at a customer of Microsoft, and a friend of mine who worked at Microsoft phoned me up one day and and said, Steve, would you be interested in the job at Microsoft?

And obviously I said yes. And I went through the interview process and ultimately was offered a job at the company. And the short version of the story is: at the time I was a company I was working for, we would regularly go and meet with Microsoft. I was in the UK, I was working in the North of England and Manchester area and Microsoft had office in the UK, was in Redding, probably about 200 miles South of that and every month the delegation of us from the company I was working for, we would go to visit with Microsoft for technical briefings. And so I go to know lots of people at Microsoft very well, at least in the UK. And as I mentioned, subsequently, one of these folks asked me if I was interested in a job offer. So I was offered the job, I was successful, I accepted the job. And so I had told all of my management and my friends at Zeneca that I was leaving Zeneca the company I was working for.

Everybody I knew at Microsoft knew I was joining Microsoft. And so I had one month, where I was finishing up my work at Zeneca, so I was still working at this company, Zeneca, and I had a one of these visits to Microsoft. And so I went to Microsoft with a group of friends, work colleagues, and we had a day of meetings at Microsoft.

And then on that first day, after we’d finished all of our meetings at Microsoft, we went to the local pub pub called The Bull in a village called Sonning on the river Thames, not far from Microsoft office. And so I stood in the pub with one of the guys I work with. And the person who’d made the original phone call is a guy named Paul.

Paul had made this original phone call asking me if I wanted to work at Microsoft, and he had not been involved in the interview process at all, so I hadn’t seen him since the original phone call, and I didn’t really know Paul that well as it happened. So I was somewhat surprised when he made the original phone call, but glad that he did. And so he walked into the pub and I was stood at the bar with one of my work colleagues and a friend who was also called Steve. And Paul walked in and walked straight up to both of us and stretched out his hand to offer a handshake to the other Steve and say congratulations on the job.

And the other Steve turned to him and said, I think you mean this guy, and pointed at me. And in that moment, I think Paul realized that when he originally had made the phone call, he had meant to call Steve Clark and it in fact called Steve Clayton. But because he’s not been involved in the interview, basically they’d offered the wrong Steve the job.

And so here I am, 22 years later, still at Microsoft. And so I might argue that maybe they offered the right to leave the job.

Fernando: That’s a great story. And I have a follow up question, but it’s actually follow up to boat that moment in the second one. So the second, I guess also starts with a phone call when you were invited to take on this new role.

Steve: Yeah. The second starts a little bit before the phone call that probably about 14 years ago, I was working for Microsoft in the UK and my job was to work on our international cloud strategy. So I was helping figure out. Things like where do we put data centers and how do we change our sales organization to make this shift from selling perpetual licenses to selling software that runs in the cloud.

But at the same time, I had started writing a blog about the company and it was sort of a semi-official blog about the company, but it was really, it wasn’t my day job. It was a hobby. Yeah, and I was writing this blog just through frustration in the coverage that I’ve seen about the company, which didn’t quite match up with the company that I saw internally.

So you have this company that I saw lots of cool things going on. A lot of the coverage about the company was less than complimentary. And so I somewhat naively thought, well, I can just, you know, change the perception by writing a blog. And so I would spend a lot of time on this blog in the evening and weekends, and my management were very supportive of it because they could see that it was a passion of mine and a hobby.

And so my blog gained some followership and a little bit of notoriety. And at times, you know, I would be not critical of the company, but I was, you know, at times if you’re going to be a good blogger, then your authenticity counts. And so it wasn’t always a hundred percent complimentary about the things that we were doing.

And so occasionally it would get the attention of the corporate PR departments and Microsoft. And one day, a few years into this, on a Tuesday evening, I was sat at home and the phone rang and the gentleman who runs Microsoft communications globally, a guy called Frank Shaw.

Frank was on the other end of the line and he said, Steve, I’d like to talk to you about your blog. And I was convinced that I was about to get fired for something that I’d done on my blog that was not good. And so I was somewhat nervously asked, Frank, you know, what can I tell you about the blog? And he said, I really love the work that you do on the blog. And I, you know, I think you should come to Seattle and do that as a full time job, which was quite a surprise.

And so, my wife was in the room at the time and I spoke to her and I said, Hey, I think I’ve just been offered my dream job, but I think it requires us to move to Seattle. And we sort of made a fairly snap decision that three months later we packed up our house, my wife and my nine month old daughter at the time moved to Seattle to take on this job of Chief Storyteller.

And so here I am almost 10 years after that. And it turned out to be one of the most important phone calls I ever received. And one of the best decisions I ever made. 

Fernando: So hearing about this two stories, I’m reminded about another guest that, uh, we’ve had recently in the podcast, Paula Kennedy, and referring to how her career moved upward in but in unexpected directions.

She told me that quote unquote: your North star will find you. Actually, meaning that many doors will open in your life and you will follow the ones you love. Until you reach your destination and specifically in your career. Is that also the lesson you take from those two stories and the advice that you give to young people starting out?

Steve: I would say it’s similar. I was about four or five years ago, I was sat having all of my best stories happen in a pub or a bar. So I sat in a bar or a pub. We have sort of a pub here on Microsoft campus in Seattle, and I was sat talking to a friend of mine, a British friend who used to work, or I worked with him in the UK back when I worked there and we were talking about, you know, he now works in Seattle. And I do, and we were sort of sharing stories about our journey over the last few years. And I sort of made this very throw away remark to John. And I said, you know, I’ve, I’ve really just got lucky. And he became someone angry at this. And he said, actually, Steve says, I don’t think you’ve been lucky at all.

He says, luck is where hard work meets opportunity. And it really struck me that. I do think that, you know, the combination of hard work and being open to opportunities and having sort of a curiosity about the world and about people has created a set of circumstances where, at least for me, you know, it led me into a number of dream jobs.

And so, I ended up trying to package all of this up in a TEDx talk I gave about four or five years ago in my hometown of Liverpool and in the audience was my, I think he was 13 at the time, my 13 year old or 12 year old nephew, and I really ended up telling my, my TEDx where it was really all to him and I tried to share these lessons around.

One of my lessons was trying to figure out as early as you can in your career, what is it that you are put on the planet to do. And I figured out probably halfway through my professional career thus far that when I was put on the planet to do is tell stories. And for the first 15 years I was working in technology and selling technology and building technology, and I love doing that, but really what it became apparent, I started writing this blog because I love telling stories and I now basically are paid to do my hobby, but don’t tell anybody that. Because I get to tell stories every day and work with a team of people who are building stories. So it’s kind of a long answer, but I do think there is this, I love this sort of symmetry of hard work and opportunity coming together to create, you know, to open doors for you. 

Fernando: Yeah, I love a very similar quote, which is something like, when luck knocked on the door, it found me working and basically says what you just described, you have a unique skill that I guess was very important to this success.

I read somewhere that you have the rare skill of translating geek to English. Why is that so important? 

Steve: Yeah. I’m not sure it’s unique. It’s certainly helped me in my career in that I work in a field that is, you know, it’s full of technology. And I think that the job, the thing that I’m, I like doing is helping people understand the technology more than that, helping people understand the impact of technology, or I think at least early in my career, there were lots of people who are very excited about the technology and they’re very, they were great at talking about technology and talking about features and talking about what our product did.

I think I just gravitated more towards their sense of storytelling around how do you make things understandable for people in a world that for many you could, you know, technology can be very confusing, but it can also be simple and empowering. And so I think I would just gravitates to this idea of how can I help people understand technology and the impact that can have.

Fernando: When you started, you were one of the first to focus only on storytelling in the corporate world, and now I guess there’s more than 20,000 people with that title on LinkedIn. Do you feel like there’s a real communicational shift happening in the direction of storytelling?

Steve: I think there is, yeah. I talk about this a lot actually to companies and at conferences and my rationale, at least my thinking behind it is, you know, we’re now in this world where we’re bombarded with information and what is under attack is our attention.

And that’s what I think has led to this rise in storytelling. And like you say, you go on LinkedIn seven years ago, nobody had storyteller as a title or a skill. And now there are, the last research I saw from LinkedIn was over 400,000 people haven’t as a skill. They’ve been on a job title, but it’s only, it’s one of the skills they professed to have.

And I think that is a reaction to a world where, you know, we’re bombarded with data and we’re bombarded with things that are very ephemeral, that are very passing. And there’s a recognition of the fact that as a species, we’ve grown up telling stories. You know, there is, for those of us who have kids, we talk about telling bedtime stories and we pass on stories through generations and it’s stories that get passed on. It’s not, you know, nobody passes on data or passes on a fact.

Even it’s stories that get told. And you know, even if you just think about how we operate in life, when you finish your day this evening and go home, you’ll tell stories to your friends or your family. Or if you go out at the weekend for for dinner, or you meet up with friends, you very much conversation is about stories. People say things like, you know, let me tell you about this vacation I went on. Let me tell you about a book I read. Let me tell you about a piece of music I listen to. Let me tell you about an experience I had. And all of those things is basically somebody saying, let me tell you a story.

Fernando: As you mentioned in your blog, Geek in Disguise, controversy was a part of the strategy, and I can say that you were a pirates and then you were recruited by the Navy. How did that change your storytelling style? 

Steve: It really didn’t. And that’s testament to the people I work for, a testament to Frank in particular, in that he, you know, in the first few weeks of working here in Seattle, the first few months I should say, I did sort of encounter the Navy and I, you know, was encouraged  to set up for my pirate flag down if I can continue the analogy. And that just didn’t seem quite right to me because, you know, one of the things that I think it was important to the work I was doing at the time is that it had to be authentic. It still had to be telling stories from inside of the company, but with a voice that was trying to help them be understandable outside of the company.

And we all have an innate sense of we can tell when something isn’t quite right, when something isn’t quite authentic. And so I sort of very much resisted some early attempts to dilute some of that authenticity. And we’re supported in that by my leadership, by Frank, who, you know, has encouraged me all along to continue some of that pirate mentality of, you know, taking risks, pushing the boundaries, trying new things.

Sometimes failing and then learning from those failures and that, that really is sort of, I would say the culture that has been established at Microsoft in particular over the last six years is how do we become a more risk taking organization and learn from those rather than playing it safe.

Fernando: So when you moved into this storyteller role in Seattle, what did you feel that needed to change in the way that Microsoft communicated at the time? And how, which was seen by the public?

Steve: I would say initially I didn’t really know. If I’m really honest, I showed up and I go into here on day one and I was like, what am I doing? Like what am I supposed to do here? And the how was a little bit less well known than the what. The what was quite well known, but what I was supposed to be doing was helping people understand that Microsoft is a more innovative company than you, than you think it is. But it took me a little bit of time to figure out the how. And so I spent just the first month or so of just going around the company and talking to interesting people that I had already knew. And then each person I went to met with, I asked them at the end of the, I basically interviewed them and said, what are you working on? Tell me about your field of expertise.

And so I was, I had this notion of, well, I’ll go and create profiles of some of these cool people doing cool things in the company. And so each person I met with, I asked them to give you the names of five people that they thought I should go meet with. And so very quickly I built out this network of 40 or 50 people that I’d interviewed, and it gave me a really good sense of, you know, just interesting stuff that was going on in the company.

But then I decided that I needed some framework to tell these stories. When I moved to Seattle, we set up a new blog that was called Next at Microsoft, and it was all, it was all focused around where is the next thing coming from and who is building it.

And so I came up with a framework that was, I call it my four P’s of people, place, product, and process. That’s evolved somewhat to a different framework these days. But the whole idea was I would combine at least two of these P’s when I was telling a story. And so I’ve always go in to tell a story about a product, I would actually tell it through the lens of the person who was creating the product or the place where the product was created.

Cause I’m, I’m a big believer in helping people understand place I think is important. You know, when you go to somebody’s house for dinner or to meet them, you get a real sense of that person. Whether, you know, we, we just intuitively look around the place, either if it’s a person’s home or their office, and you make these assumptions based on the art that’s on the wall or the music that they have or the things that they have in their home or in the workplace.

And so I had this real sense of I wanted to show people more of the places of Microsoft. I wanted to show people a bit more of the process of how things were built. And so I spent the first few years really howing that craft of saying how do we tell stories using the combination of these P’s but doing it in a way that was never about, if I wanted to tell a story about a person, I would tell it through the place where they worked or the product that they created.

So it was this kind of inversion of the P’s. So the one that you were telling the story about was never top of the stack. And then that just evolved over time into building out, that was originally really just me as a solo operator. And now, you know, here we are today, 10 years later, and there are 35 people on the team who were doing all kinds of different storytelling inside of the company and outside of the company to different audiences.

So it’s been, it’s been a real evolution, but those, I would say early months, I didn’t really have much of a sense of how to do it. And you won’t always do them, but not really the how. 

Fernando: Since almost everyone is interacted with the Microsoft product at some point in their lives. Do you think that makes that job easier or harder?

Steve: I think it makes it a little bit of both. We are fortunate in that many people are familiar with Microsoft just through our products. You know, when you have products that are used, products like windows and office that are used by, you know, a billion or more people around the world, then you certainly have great, you know, name recognition.

You know, we’re a company that’s been around for 45 years now, and so we have some history as well, but we also have, you know, lots of businesses that depending on where you’re coming from, if you’re a business, then you probably know many of our commercial products like windows or like Azure or teams that you may not be as familiar with things like, you know, Minecraft or Xbox or some of our more consumer oriented parts of our business. But I think more important than all of that is really just helping people understand why we exist on the planet. And you know, we do have this mission statement as a company to empower every person and every organization on the planet to achieve more.

And so I think the name recognition is great, but that’s really just the first rung on the ladder. That gives us maybe the opportunity or the license to go and help people understand who Microsoft really is as a company. 

Fernando: Well, you mentioned the mission statement, and I’m sure it’s not by accident because Microsoft makes it a point to repeat that a lot, right? But during your time at Microsoft, I believe this statement changed two times. So first near the end of Steve Ballmer’s time as CEO, it went from a computer on every desk and in every home to something a bit more complex. Were you involved in this change and how do you feel about it today?

Steve: I was involved a little bit in the change to the current mission statement. You know, we did start out with a missions name of 45 years ago. I have a PC on every desk and in every home. And technically that’s actually more of a vision statements because it has this kind of a more measurable, achievable end game of a PC on every desk in every home you can measure it.

And so, and, and sort of the technicalities of vision statements versus mission statements, that was more of a vision statement of somewhere that we wanted to get to. Whereas today’s is truly a mission statement around empowering people to achieve more, and you can say that that’s something that we will, you know, it’s a journey. It’s not a destination we’re going to get. We’ll always be on that journey. And so I did have some involvement in helping to create the new mission statement. And I would say it’s two things I would say about it, one is I’m proud that the company in jewels with that mission statement. So, you know, we’ve had that for probably around about six years now, and we repeated very often and very intentionally because it’s important that people hear it.

It’s important that we don’t forget that not everybody has heard it. Just because we’ve said it once doesn’t mean that it’s being heard by everybody. And then there was also, the second thing I would say is there was a lot of intentionality around the words that were chosen in that mission statement.

Some of which were quite fun. You know, there was a heated debate at one point around should it be every person on the planet or every person in the universe. Because right around the time we were working on the mission statement, we had just put a hollow lens on the international space station. And so the team that were involved in that were quite convinced that our mission should extend beyond the planets and actually into the universe.

But all joking aside, there was a lot of effort by, you know, the senior leaders of the company and a lot of time spent on choosing those words around every person and every organization, so recognizing that we do serve this, you know, we serve the planet and we don’t just have developed nations or commercial businesses.

We serve individuals. We serve as much a farmer in Africa, just as much as we serve a startup on the East coast of the United States just as much as we serve an NGO in Australia. And so that really is the breadth of the community that we’re trying to deliver products and platforms and technologies to, and then the other piece being around achieve more is what is it that we’re trying to do for people where we’re trying to put tools in the hands of people to help them do more of what they want, whether it’s in work or in life. And so there was a lot of intentionality around the words that were chosen. 

Fernando: You also realize that the mission statement can evolve so you can focus on a planet today and then change it to something else in the future if it goes beyond the planet right?

Steve: I think we could. I think one of the things that I’m pleased about though is that it hasn’t really evolved is that one of the ways that you sort of build credibility and build trust is through consistency.

And we’ve been incredibly consistent in talking about that mission, incredibly consistent in helping to tell stories that we can say, here are examples of that mission and action. 

Fernando: Unbabel’s mission statement and the inspiration for this podcast actually, it’s to build universal understanding. At which point in a company’s journey do you think that it makes sense to revisit and change the mission?

Steve: I don’t know. I think it maybe it makes sense when significant changes happen, whether that’s inside of the company or in the external environment. But my general sense, you know, maybe I can answer it this way, I would be quite happy personally if Microsoft mission statement was the same and in 20 years time.

And I think that is somewhat the test of a great mission statement is does it have a durability and does it have endurance. 

Fernando: You had the chance to work with three central characters in the history of Microsoft, the CEOs, so I guess Bill Gates, you still had some time while Bill Gates was there. Then Steve Ballmer, then Satya Nadella. Three different communication in leadership styles, I would say. What are the biggest strengths you can leverage and challenges you have to overcome with each one of them?

Steve: Well, I really didn’t have much of a chance to work with Bill. I got to interview him once, which was really great fun. We were talking about, I think windows seven and windows phone back then, and so I didn’t get much of an opportunity to work with Bill very closely, unfortunately, and only worked with Steve a little bit on some of his communication in particular, I did a few demos for Steve. So one of the things that I still love doing is demonstrates it and showing technology and doing live demonstrations of it. And so I had the chance to do that a few times with Steve, and that was great fun. You know, the guy was just incredibly passionate about everything, but certainly about technology.

And that was great fun to work with. But I have, I’ve had chance over the last six years to work more closely with Satya and with his team. He’s an incredibly good storyteller that, you know, he recognizes, I think, the power of story, he certainly recognizes the power. One of the things I’ve talked about is I admire his capacity for repetition, which is something that’s incredibly hard for when you were given as many talks and speeches as somebody like a CEO, any CEO, is then the ability to get comfortable with repeating yourself is a real skill. And so I say that, you know, I think I’ve probably seen Satya give 500 or 600 speeches at this stage. He’s a little over six years into his tenure as CEO.

And I would say every single one of those speeches he’s talked about the mission statements, like he’s literally mentioned the mission statement. That’s very, very hard to do as a communicator and as a storyteller because  it’s easy to become tired with saying the same thing. But I think he’s clearly recognizes the power of doing that is making it very clear that we truly believe in this thing.

And it also gives lots of people inside of the company licensed to be able to do work that says the work I am doing, the stories I am telling, are going to accrue to that mission statement. And so the last six years of storytelling has been remarkable for us. 

Fernando: I recently read the book called The presentation secrets of Steve Jobs, that helps anyone to create more effective presentations by following the Job’s playbook. You could probably write a book about the presentation secrets of Satya Nadella. What would you focus on? You already mentioned the repetition of the mission statement. What other tips would you give to people that want to give great presentations?

Steve: Well, first of all, I would say that Steve Jobs was an incredible presenter. So even, you know, when I was early in my career, I would study him and, you know, take a look at, you know, his delivery and his technique and the slides that he use to support things. And you know, he was a phenomenal storyteller.

And so one of the tips that we give people just genuinely is to, it was a tip that was given to me early in my career, sort of sit at the feet of the great masters of this craft and learn from them. And so I spent a lot of my time when I was earlier in my career and trying to figure out how to become a better presenter, I spent lots of my time just watching Ted talks over and over and over. And I remember, you know, one of them that I, I’m very familiar with is Ken Robinson gives an incredible, he’s done a few Ted talks, but the first one he did was around, you know, how to reform education. It’s an incredible tool in the way that he takes people on a journey and he tells a story and he involves so can and involves a lot of humor in his storytelling.

But if I was to try and package that up and say, what are some of the, the tips that I’ve learned along the way, I think it is, you know, having a real sense of the arc of the story that you’re going to tell when you’re presenting. And it seems incredibly simple that, you know, being able to say there is a setup to a story.

So there is creating some tension in a way and saying, what is the problem that we’re trying to solve. You know, how can we overcome this challenge? Showing people the solution and then taking people through and showing them how you know, the impact of that solution. That’s a short way of saying, you know, the best presentations that take people on the classic storytelling journey of, you know, this sort of the hero’s journey.

And I would say when you have a hero that is an actual hero and is not a product, that really helps. So I would say things like that I’ve learned is just understanding and recognizing the arc of the story that you’re trying to tell. And I still sit down and you know, I gave a presentation in Portugal a few weeks ago and two weeks before that, I sat down with a piece of paper and a pencil and I wrote out the chapters of the story of how I was going to set up the topic that I was talking about, how I was going to introduce a little bit of tension into that story, how I was then going to introduce some heroes into that story and how I was going to show this positive outcome.

And so for me, sitting down literally and still writing out my story on a piece of paper and drawing it as an arc, is an important thing. And there are lots of great tools out there to help support that. I would say the one that I most regularly recommend to people is a great book by Nancy Duarte, who’s a brilliant speech coach, and presenter herself runs a company called Duarte, but Nancy’s book resonate, I think is one of the best tools out for both teaching how to be a great presenter, but actually what it really is, is an incredible book around storytelling.

Fernando: A lot of the stories you share at Microsoft ever social responsibility angle. Was that something you wanted to highlight from the start or did it just evolve in that way? 

Steve: I think it’s somewhat evolved that way in the, you know, when we created this new mission statement around six years ago, it really put us in a position of being this company that had a purpose.

And you know, whether that’s a social purpose or just a purpose.

When Satya first came into the job as CEO, he was asking these questions inside of the company: why does Microsoft exist on the planet? Why would people care if we disappeared tomorrow? And it really gave the impetus to say, what is the purpose of this company?

And so once you have that purpose, that is, you know, empower every person and organization on the planet to achieve more, we then have this canvas to go and tell stories that begin to shift us away from the storytelling that we have been doing that was perhaps a little bit more focused around us and what we were doing in the world.

And is now much more focused around what is the impact of our technology, who has said early on, how is a farmer using it to get better crop yield in Africa? How is a start-up using it, you know, in Australia to protect the natural habitat and how as a health care provider in the UK using it to provide better healthcare outcomes.

And so those stories, they just sort of appeared when we created this landscape of this mission statement. It sorta changed our vision a little bit around the types of stories that we can go and tell, you know, in the impact that our technology has in the world, that gives us just this almost inexhaustible ability to go and find and tell great stories about the impact of technology.

Fernando: A lot of those stories and the impact of technology are related to language. And that is obviously a topic very close to our hearts at Unbabel. I’m thinking, for example, about talking about your mother-in-law being Chinese and being able to communicate with her during a Skype translator demo or a story about the African language that was dying, and then Microsoft worked to encode it into windows office and help to preserve.

Why do you think language lends itself to be a topic of such great stories?

Steve: Well, I think language, you know, continues to be one of the things that divides us as a people. Not intentionally, but everybody has their own, you know, not everybody, but there are many cultures and languages and they’ve grown up in a way that in some cases has created barriers that, you know, I, I don’t speak Fulfulde.

And so that language that we recently encoded into windows and into office is now a language that, you know, we, at some point, you know, can potentially translate from Fulfulde into English. So I’m able to communicate with people I could never previously communicate with. And so I think on a fundamental level is language is something that should be cherished by each community because of its history and its origin.

But language has also been this thing that has created barriers between people. And so to the extent that we can use technology to remove those barriers, I think that is just phenomenal.

I have family on my wife’s side that are Chinese. I don’t speak Chinese, and many of them don’t speak English. That’s just difficult, there are people in my family that I literally can’t talk to, yet through the power of technology, I can now talk to them. 

Fernando: You know, Lori Thicke, one of the founders of Ttranslators without Borders, another guest of this podcast. She’s very passionate about the preservation of rare languages and everything that lives and dies with those languages.

On one of your unboxing episodes, you touched this topic and state that every two weeks a language dies. Microsoft’s program AI for good is tackling this and other issues to preserve diversity of human culture around the world. Can you tell me more about AI for good and why is Microsoft putting resources into it?

Steve: Well, AI is, you know, it’s one of these technologies arguably going to be one of the most important technologies. And over the last five or six years, it’s really become a technology that has its time has arrived because of a combination of almost infinite computing power, combination of huge amounts of data and some real breakthroughs in AI algorithms.

And so AI is this, it is what is underneath translation technology that allows you to to translate from English into Chinese and from Chinese into English. And so it’s become this technology that we’ve recognized has huge potential to preserve and to even develop existing cultures that may previously have cultures or languages that may previously have faded away.

You know, the work around AI for good falls into this category of how can we help create an arena for people to take AI and apply it through grants that we provide that are helping people take AI technology to, to solve some of these, these challenges that do help us preserve, you know, whether it’s language or culture anywhere in the world.

Fernando: Do you think that every company with a global footprint like Microsoft has, has the responsibility to create social and environmental programs, or is that optional in business? 

Steve: I personally don’t think it’s optional. I think, you know, we, we do have a responsibility around what is the role that we play in the world, but also what is the role that we play in all local societies?

You know, one of the things that made me most proud last year was a announcement that Microsoft made around a $500 million investment to solve the housing crisis here in Seattle, that we have people who can’t afford to live in Seattle, who work in our community, even in our community here at Microsoft. And so I think that there is certainly for an organization like ours, a responsibility to say, you know, what can we do? Whether it’s in our backyard here in Seattle or on the other side of the world as I mentioned earlier on, you know, some of the work we’re doing in Australia with a group of startups there to help preserve the environment and the, and the biodiversity of the ecosystem there. 

Fernando: And Microsoft recently made a big statement that you will be carbon negative by 2030 through a moonshot initiative to remove all the carbon the company has emitted since it was founded. How do you see the communication of these initiatives during the next 10 years? Are you already building the story you’ll tell about this?


We have to build a technology before we can build the story. And so there were some great stories to be told.

You know, there’s great work already underway around how do we seek more sources of renewable energy so that we can achieve those targets that we’ve gone, you know, carbon neutral in 2030 and, and then by 2050 we’re going to, we’ve committed to remove all of the carbon that Microsoft has put into the atmosphere since our founding in 1975 so they’re some big bold goals. And you know, we’ve also recognize that we don’t have all of the answers. And so that’s why we’ve committed $1 billion in an innovation fund to help encourage others to say, where can we find solutions to some of the challenges that we know exist?

And even some of the challenges that we don’t know exist. And so that, I think, you know, the combination of the affordable housing work that we did last year, this announcement most recently, the two for me of the proudest moments of the company because it, it’s, you know, that’s the company I want to work for.

That is a company that has purpose, that has a clear social responsibility. And when those stories become apparent, we will go and tell those stories. But I don’t think the stories have been written yet, there’s a lot of hard work ahead of us over the next few years. And when the stories are ready to be told, we will tell them. 

Fernando: Okay. So playing just a little bit of devil’s advocate, as more and more companies are pivoting to green storytelling, some critics accused them of greenwashing. What would you say to those critics?

Steve: You know, there will always be, there will always be critics. I think we can be assured of that, but that’s not going to go away.

I think the challenge for all of us who are entering this space and participate in this too, is to really walk the talk. And so it’s very easy to issue a tweet. It’s much harder to follow that up with action.

And you know, certainly from my vantage point of where I sit and what I see a Microsoft, you know, we, uh, we are going way beyond words and we’re putting things into action.

With programs like AI for good were programs more recently like AI for health and with the recent carbon announcements and in our commitments to go and use technology and innovation to find solutions to arguably the biggest challenge we have on the planet right now. 

Fernando: So I’m going to end with a selfish question, which is for my own interest, like you, I studied computer science engineering 20 years ago, and then I fell in love with digital marketing. Somehow arrived here as director of marketing at Unbabel, and this year I decided to take this risk to host a branded podcast about our mission: building universal understanding. And as I’m starting in this medium, what advice can you give me to make this podcast a success? 

Steve: I think my advice would be to take risks, take risks that you might not ordinarily take.

And one of the ways I sometimes think about that is to, I was given a talk last week and I was asked to a question somewhat similar to this. And the way I’ve answered it in the past is maybe this is just a personal thing, but against this backdrop of how do we try and get people’s attention. And ultimately what you’re trying to do with the podcast is to get people’s attention and to have them hear your story.

But lots of other people are trying to get people’s attention, lots of other people are invested in podcasts, and so the question I would ask myself is, what is it that’s going to make my podcast stand out or your podcast stand out? And I think it’s, in some ways it’s by thinking about a sailboat. I’d not really much of a sailor, but the brief amount of sail that I did was, you know, learning this lesson about tacking in the opposite direction.

And sometimes it’s going in the opposite direction or going in the direction that people might not expect is what’s going to get people’s attention. Because you watch a sailboat race and you see all these sailboats going in one direction, and then you see this one boat that just that it turns, and you sort of look at this, you know, 20 boats on the horizon and you see this one boat go in the other way and you’re like, why is that boat going the other way?

And it’s because the skipper of the boat has somehow recognized that the wind is about to change. And so he’s turned his boat in advance of the wind changing to catch that wind coming the other way. And you know, often sails off into the distance and wins the race. And so that is, maybe it’s too simple of an analogy, and it’s not meant to be quite as literal as that in the, you should do exactly the opposite of somebody else. But I think, you know, if I think about that view of the horizon of the boats, all of those 20 boats sailing together is not really going to capture your attention. But what does is when somebody does something a little bit different and then turns in a different direction.

Fernando: Well, I love that example because I never sailed in my life until last year when I did take a beginner course for a week, so that’s perfect. Thank you so much, Steve. It was great talking to you. 

Steve: My pleasure. Really great to chat with you.

Fernando: Thank you for listening to the Unbabel podcast. If you want to discover more of Steve’s work, head over to news.microsoft.com/stories if you like the Unbabel podcast and don’t want to miss future episodes, subscribe on your favorite podcast app, and if you really, really liked us, help others find our podcast by leaving a review or sharing this episode with your friends.

The Unbabel podcast is produced by myself, Raquel Magalhães, Raquel Henriques, and resinate recordings.

The post Unbabel Podcast: Steve Clayton and the power of stories appeared first on Unbabel.

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