7 Career & Comms Lessons from Microsoft’s Very First Xbox PR Pro

As an early-in-career who joined the Microsoft Communications “Comms” team with no formal comms or PR experience, I sometimes find myself feeling a bit lost and asking a lot of questions! Luckily, I’ve met some very passionate leaders and teammates who have been inspiring me in my comms career so far.

Today, let’s dive into the juicy world of 27-year Microsoft veteran, David Hufford, Head of Work & Play Communications & Analyst Relations. Now a passionate, buoyant, and engaging leader, David was also the first Xbox PR person back in 1999 — and the one behind this cover story featuring Bill Gates in Times Magazine!

Over the decades, David has come up with some of his biggest career and PR/comms learnings — popularly known as “Huffisms” around the company — and is sharing them with us below! Psst… read until the end for bonus career advice 👀

#1 – Get insanely curious 🔍

Seeking to understand others is key to deep relationships and career growth.

Sometimes you need to slow down to speed up. Curiosity is your secret weapon to being a great communicator because it makes you pause to seek understanding, which makes you slower to judge others and their ideas. 

Learn how to go deep on any topic by taking the time to ask good questions that people don’t often take the time to ask:

  • What is the story we want to tell? 
  • Why is this story important?
  • Who is the audience?
  • Why should they care?
  • What do we want them to feel, say, and do?
  • What are their current perceptions? 
  • What are the desired perceptions we want to move the audience towards?
  • What will success look like?

#2 – Are you open for business? 💭

High-impact players want and always are open to feedback — even if it stings!

Take all feedback as a gift that can make you aware of potential blindspots. Pause, zoom out, and ask questions whenever you get frustrated or receive constructive feedback. Having this “learn-it-all” — instead of “know-it-all” — mindset will help you show up as your best self to others and do your best work.

For example, David once felt shocked when a senior executive told him “I don’t feel your presence.” David asked to learn more, listened intently, and started working on himself. A year later, the executive left the company and ended up recognizing and thanking David in his goodbye email.

#3 – The cheese is always moving 🧀

Change happens all the time. The key to thriving in a dynamic environment is to anticipate change and adapt to it.

The world and workplace are constantly changing — the age of AI is creating new opportunities, colleagues come and go, headcount and budgets are cut, and business priorities shift. With inspiration from the book, “Who Moved My Cheese”, David believes that the best “mice” are the ones who move to where the cheese is moving next because they can anticipate, adapt to, and welcome change better than most.

In 2022, David was asked to lead the comms strategy for Microsoft’s launch into the AI era with the new Bing and rallied a team of folks who had never worked together before. When the team faced unexpected scenarios, he’d remind them that “the cheese is always moving” to encourage everyone to expect change, prepare for it, and roll with it.

So how can you figure out where the cheese is moving next? Listen to how the most senior leaders in the organization talk about their priorities over time and remember that their words are intentional:

  • What are they saying? What are you hearing?
  • What are they communicating that might be unsaid? 
  • What role can comms play in anticipating and adapting to the changes ahead?
  • What clarity do you need to validate whether to anticipate and adapt to change? 

#4 – Be a storymaker, not just a storyteller 📰

Storymaking is an expansive, proactive approach that challenges you to find the opportunities to tell thought leader stories with deep, meaningful insights.

Storymakers don’t just relay the news — they craft compelling narratives that make the news interesting and relevant by:

  • Defining the audience and their interests and problems
  • Finding deep and unique insight that matters to the audience
  • Recognizing the tensions that make a story interesting

For example, one of David’s fellow comms leaders proposed the idea of Microsoft’s Work Trend Index (WTI) to address the media’s lack of interest in covering product related news, while establishing an innovative thought leadership platform. Today, the WTI showcases the shift from storytelling (product feature news) to storymaking (leading with trend-based storytelling, then following with the product news).

#5 – If you’re explaining, you’re losing 📝

The art of communications is in the ‘sculpting’ — taking away — of information to make a message more clear, rather than the ‘building’ — or adding — of information.

Even when we know that attention is fleeting, communicators may be tempted to say more than they need to. Remember to be clear and concise, especially during times of change and confusion.

If a piece of information requires too much explanation, then you’ll likely lose your audience because people usually only read the headline. Try to pinpoint what it is you’re actually trying to say — aka the soundbite — and then make it as short, sweet, concise, and captivating as possible!

#6 – Give it a “tweet” (or an “X”, Mastodon, or LinkedIn post) and a kiss goodnight 💋

Legend has it that a Microsoft icon once said that if they had only one dollar to spend on marketing, they would spend it all on PR!

Everyone loves PR because it is “earned” and seen as more authentic and trusted coming from an objective third party. Many times, the “go-to” PR tactic is a wordy blog or press release that requires a lot of time, attention, and chaotic group editing. However, there are other times when we can simply share an easy-to-understand story in the form of a short social post. 

Always look for opportunities to break down and simplify a story vs. building it up with complexity. For example, check out when Xbox tweeted a response to the Series S leaks with a meme or responded to its E3 2016 leaks with the shrug emoji ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. These responses were fun and playful — and totally on brand!

#7 – Share early, often, and ugly 🚦

It’s better to engage leaders and decision makers early and often — while things are ‘ugly’ — than to bring them in late after you’ve spent countless hours laboring.

Communicators tend to be perfectionists who want to get all the details polished and finalized before sharing it for review. Don’t wait for perfection because it can be less productive.

Ask your manager and executive stakeholders how they like to review things — early and often throughout the process or right at deadline? Sometimes, it’s better to share an “ugly” first draft for early feedback than to spend hours crafting a perfect “final” draft only to learn that it needs to be entirely rewritten. If you’re feeling stuck, then ask for help or advice! If you’re facing a challenge, raise it to the attention of your manager and stakeholders before it escalates. 

Bonus: Final words of career advice 🙌🏼

Special thank you to David for taking the time to share his Huffisms and elaborate on them in our 1on1 chat for the purpose of this blog post. I hope you found these useful and will leverage them in your Comms career! 

Here are some final words of career advice from David who is always eager to help top talent and teams create career changing impact and is currently on the journey of becoming an accredited leadership and team development coach:

  • Great mentors have an outside-in point of view and are not directly linked to your work or success. They can give you a fresh set of eyes and ears and be a safe place for you to be open and honest about your thoughts and challenges.
  • Great managers provide clarity and inspiration while delivering truth and feedback with care. You want to find managers who trust you and want to listen to your ideas and support you in making them happen.
  • Don’t be discouraged if people don’t accept your ideas at first because “no” really means “not yet”. Sometimes you may have the right idea, but it’s not the right timing. Take it as an opportunity to practice “turtling” and come back to it later.

Thanks for reading 🌟