Interview: Microsoft’s Dona Sarkar on the Art of Spinning Your Tale
Why do some brands succeed and others fail? People have been struggling to understand this for decades. Is it a captivating story? A compelling speaker? Something else?
Dona Sarkar has been thinking about this ever since she emerged as a key player at Microsoft. The Chief NinjaCat of Microsoft’s Windows Insider Program, published author of fiction and non-fiction works and fashion designer, among other achievements, Sarkar has successfully built a personal brand that feels authentic.
The LiveTiles team recently attended the European SharePoint Conference in Copenhagen, and one of the highlights was the Women in Technology lunch hosted by Sarkar. The conversation focused on the stories that define us. Sarkar’s message? If we don’t take control of our narrative, someone else will. We caught up with Sarkar after the lunch to learn more about the art of spinning your tale. Check out our interview below.
What does it mean to “spin your tale”?
Right now, there’s a message about you that’s out there. People are talking about you behind your back and you have absolutely no idea what they’re saying.
Spinning your tale is the act of identifying, first of all, what people are saying about you, and then figuring out the delta between what they are saying and what you want them to be saying. Spinning your tale is crafting the story that you want repeated about you because in the absence of information, people make stuff up. You want to give them the information so they’re telling the story you want told.
How does spinning your tale relate to brand building?
Spinning your tale is very much related to brand building. Brand is what other people feel and think about you. Your name has a brand attached to it, and if you don’t spin your tale, someone else well. Your story is the first step toward building your brand.
What are some misconceptions that people have about brand building?
One thing I’ve heard over and over is that people who build a strong personal brand are arrogant, pompous or attention-seeking. But really, they’re people who want to tell their story.
Every single person in the world has a brand. If you search for a person’s name, you get information, and what is it that you’re seeing? In the absence of you spinning your tale, there is a version one out there. You spinning it and creating version two is not arrogant or pompous or attention-seeking, it’s an important part of building your brand. There’s nothing wrong with crafting your story on purpose.
Can individuals and companies approach brand building the same way?
It’s exactly the same. Humans don’t need to think like companies, companies need to think like humans. We like to do business with companies that seem authentic. You like to imagine that the soul of the CEO is embedded in the company.
It’s true of Microsoft, for example. Microsoft’s brand is very much Satya Nadella’s brand. His brand is inclusive, kind, gentle, empathetic, and that’s what people think about Microsoft. It’s different than it was under Steve Ballmer, and it’s not an accident that Microsoft’s brand the last three years has dramatically changed.
Usually, especially for new companies, the soul of the CEO is very much the brand of the company. In bigger companies, this tends to get lost. But if companies are clear about their vision and the change they want to see in the world, and they live it every single day, then they can build an authentic brand like humans regardless of how big they become.
What needs to be part of your tale to create a successful brand?
First, there should be a vision statement. What is the change you want to see in the world?
For me, I want to make sure no one in the world is told they are too ambitious. I hear this over and over. If you’re an underrepresented person, people will say, “Oh that’s very ambitious, you want to be the CEO of Microsoft.” But why is that a bad thing? No one becomes the CEO of Microsoft by saying they don’t want to become the CEO of Microsoft. They don’t achieve that by sitting quietly in their office and saying, “Yeah I’m cool with just being a software engineer.” That’s not the way it works.
After a vision statement, you need a mission. What are you going to do about it? My mission is that I’m going to find people who come from nothing and have achieved great things. I’m going to tell the story of how they’ve taken control of their brand, and by spinning their tale, have achieved more than anyone expected.
The last thing you need are the tactics. How are you going to share your story? This is where most people fall apart. They know what they stand for, they know what they want to do, but they don’t actually go and do anything about it.
It’s important to understand where people are going to get information about you. Is it that LinkedIn profile from two years ago? Is it that time you had a Friendster account? Or is it your personal website that you keep up to date with the latest news? Your Twitter feed where you’re witty and interesting? For me, it’s focusing on just two platforms, LinkedIn articles and Twitter. Whatever it is for you, you need a place online where you can showcase your brand.
Which mediums are most effective for brand building?
It totally depends on what your brand is. There isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution. It completely depends on what you want to be known for.
At ESPC, for example, there are a lot of IT Professionals, and the best way to showcase IT expertise is through written blogs. For coders, GitHub is the industry standard for showing your expertise. For people who are generally good on camera, YouTube or Instagram videos are great. If you’re someone who can write, Medium is better.
The point, at the end of the day, is to choose the platform that showcases your skill set. Choose something you’re going to want to do and be good at, so you can keep up with it often.
As social media enables more people to share their stories, how can you stand out?
The two things you must do to stand out is be authentic and be vulnerable. No one else has your history. People may have the same job you do now, but no one traveled the same journey to get there. You should be authentic to your own origin story.
There are a million software engineers at Microsoft, but very few come from Detroit, Michigan. That’s my journey. I came from Detroit, I failed my first Computer Science class, I joined Microsoft more than ten years ago, I struggled through the first years, I’ve had every job at Microsoft and now I’m leading the Insider Program. I’ve been involved with lots of different products and had lots of different jobs. So technically I’m a software engineer at Microsoft, but no one has my journey, and that authenticity is what makes my story resonate.
It’s important to be vulnerable during your journey. To say, “I am learning,” rather than, “I am an expert.” When you think about your favorite books and movies, you like following the hero’s journey. You don’t relate to someone if they’re not deeply flawed and trying to improve.