Journalism and storytelling at Microsoft

[Writer’s Note: This article is part of a series of articles about my personal and professional growth through my time as a content publishing intern at Microsoft, and how this experience is influenced by my identity as a person of color. I hope that this will serve as an outlet for reflection and a reminder to bring all of myself to the table, while also providing a few helpful tidbits for anyone else doing an internship or exploring the tech industry.]

My love for journalism started 2.5 years ago, when I applied to be a photographer for the school newspaper, The Daily of the University of Washington — only to find out that I had accidentally completed the application to be a writer. For context, I hadn’t been a writer up until this point. I had written essays for English classes and a few reflections on my phone, but most of these musings never made it into public sight. Although I haven’t always been a journalist, I have always self-identified as a storyteller — and I learned it all from my family. I grew up hearing my grandmother recount the harrowing tales of crossing borders during the India-Pakistan partition, but there were more-lighthearted ones too. Like when she climbed into the neighbor’s yard to get mango trees. Or ghost stories from haunted houses where soldiers in the Pakistan Air Force had lived. Every time she shared, I found myself gripping my seat as she brought her past to life with just her words — and 20 years later, she hasn’t run out of tales to tell me.

In my own career, I want to capture people’s stories with the same authenticity and vividness that she showed me, so I took the chance to write for The Daily. I jumped into the training class and the world of AP Style and [CQ]s, and I never looked back.

Since I often had autonomy over what stories or events I covered for the newspaper, I chose to tell stories about culture and higher education and programs that strive to address differential access to educational resources. Too often, voices of marginalized communities are overlooked in the media because narratives of college campuses often focus on celebrating what is being done well in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics fields because these disciplines often get the most funding. Contrastingly, the stories about what we need to do better regarding our desires to create a diverse and inclusive community, or address issues of differential access to education, are often discussed broadly.

As a journalist, I wanted to highlight stories of on-campus-communities or organizations that let underrepresented minorities speak for themselves, especially because their narratives had often been silenced.

Whenever I’m talking to someone for a story, I approach interviews with a simple notion: set aside my desire to be at the center of conversation and focus on listening to others. As a journalist, I see myself as a sounding board for other people’s ideas, and my main goal is to create space for the other person to share openly. And when they do, I thank them for their vulnerability. Sure, this might come with a few moments of silence or pauses during an interview, but I promise you that people are looking for conversations where they can be honest about their motivations, goals, and even struggles. Conversations with people who live these realities have challenged my perceptions about what it means to be an undocumented student, a commuter, or a foster care youth.

The first time I realized the value of active listening, and the value of setting aside my own perceptions, was when I wrote a story about undocumented students, and it opened up the world of this hidden identity that I never knew. Their stories revealed that being undocumented is often a hidden identity because undocumented individuals may fear judgment from their peers, repercussions from the law, and deportation at the hands of government officials. They wanted to make America better by positively contributing to the community, but they lived in fear of judgment from their peers, colleagues, and instructors. Their stories reminded me that journalism heavily influences people’s perceptions, and this story could allow the students to reclaim words that fit their realities.

Now, I’m at Microsoft, and I found myself wondering: Where does my identity as a storyteller fit in, particularly at a place that is first and foremost an engineering company? Through my work, I’ve realized that like being a journalist, being a good coworker starts by creating space and psychological safety for people share their own perspective. So, whenever I chat with people at Microsoft, I try to ask more questions than I answer, only prompting them with reassuring nods or follow-up questions to dig deeper. Just like my interviews, I realized that people often want to be vulnerable with people who will honor their story, and these conversations might be the first time that they’re being asked to share what their entire journey to Microsoft or the things that make them jump out of bed in the morning. I’ve had countless conversations where people will tell me about moments where they’ve felt overlooked or excluded as well as times that they’ve finally made a difference in their communities, which reminds me that I can learn from anybody’s story.

My journalism skills make me a more engaged coworker, storyteller, and friend because I’m always trying to learn from others, regardless of their discipline of interest.

This became apparent to me when talking with August Niehaus, a UX voice designer for Cortana, who studied journalism during her undergrad at Seattle Pacific University. We had an hour to chat, so I decided to approach the conversation like a journalist and see her as an expert in the field. I went on to ask as many questions as possible while validating and responding to things she shared about wanting to leave a mark on your industry, making yourself valuable to a team, and the road that can land you in a job that didn’t exist 10 years ago.

At the end of our conversation, August commented that I had great questions and kept the conversation moving while still being engaged in the conversation. I’m convinced that hearing this from a fellow journalist, and someone who looks for the intersection between writing and technology, made me sit up a little bit straighter. Our talk reminded me that authentic conversations are all about putting aside yourself to make room for people to share authentically, and that’s what storytellers are best at. I’m thankful that journalism helps me craft compelling stories that capture someone’s voice and priorities. I’m even luckier that I get to have these conversations as part of my job, and the view from the 25th floor of the Microsoft City Center made it all even more worth it. I feel empowered and excited and inspired to be surrounded by people like August who is blazing a trail in the field of voice design and holds herself to high standards every day.

I’m learning to bring my love of storytelling to my work as a content developer intern. Although this field is often focused on the concise and direct nature of technical writing, there are ways to bring a love of stories to this work — and, at the end of the day, we’re trying to empower people in some way, which is the same goal of any good story. Our Content Experience team is using words to paint a vivid picture for customers, and the goal of that can vary from troubleshooting how to set-up a printer to the process of changing your desktop background at work so it reminds you of home. I’m learning to approach technical writing with the same approach of providing context, keeping the reader engaged, and offering opportunities to follow-up.

So, journalism and storytelling may not traditionally be associated with the background of a Microsoft intern, but these skills are integral to my success as a writer and future UX career. Being a storyteller can be a differentiator beyond just writing jobs — It’s important to know how to sell your experience or idea and why it’s commercially viable or worth investing in. Journalists and writers do this on a daily basis, but writing and information-seeking skills can be brought to every discipline.

What kinds of conversations are you trying to create in your workplace, and what stories do you want to tell more often? I hope that you can find a willing listener, or be one, in your workplace and beyond.

If you enjoyed this article, feel free to check other ones in the series! You can read about the value of finding and maintaining productive side hustles, or about how my identity as a Pakistani Muslim woman informs my work.

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I write about representation in media, travel, & storytelling 🌈 | lifting as I climb | marketer at Microsoft & freelance speaker | www.aleenahansari.com

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Aleenah Ansari

Aleenah Ansari

I write about representation in media, travel, & storytelling 🌈 | lifting as I climb | marketer at Microsoft & freelance speaker | www.aleenahansari.com

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