I spent this week at Dreamforce. Salesforce created this as its huge annual event in San Francisco. And, as usual, the event featured non-stop activity. Attendees discover so many things to see. They also find so many people to meet. I found it impossible to get to everything and everyone. But the event offered a chance to speak with a number of folks. That included the chance to speak with Vala Afshar. Afshar serves as Salesforce’s Chief Digital Evangelist.
I guess more than a few of the people who read this are one of Vala’s 400,000 plus followers on Twitter. As a result, you know he shares a lot of great content and insights. But I spent a few minutes with him. So went beyond the 280 character limit. And we learned more about his role at Salesforce. We asked him why so many people follow him. But we also asked him about the things he shares with tens of thousands of followers. Some tweets get hundreds of thousands of likes and shares.
Check below for an edited transcript of our conversation. Or listen to the full convo. Watch the video, or click on the embedded SoundCloud player below.
What is a Digital Evangelist?
SBT: What exactly do you do as a chief digital evangelist for Salesforce?
Vala Afshar: I’ve got to give credit to Alex Dayon who was the president of products in 2015 when I joined, it was Alex who said, “I think you should be the chief digital evangelist. Because as a customer, my company and I used the platform across sales services, marketing, even engineering. We had integrated our R&D database to our CRM platform so that when engineers updated our defect tracking in real time, that insight would go to our front line service staff.
And so we removed a ton of friction and heavy process and created almost an autonomous enterprise in terms of how we would leverage insights from different parts of department. So because I used the platform across entire line of business and had familiarity with the platform, Alex and John Taschek (SVP of Market Strategy) didn’t want me focus specific to one cloud or one of technology.
Being Challenged by Abundance
So that’s the origin… I’m not an analyst, but I play one on TV, you know. So research, writing, speaking and being a 13-year Salesforce customer means I made a ton of mistakes. I learned from those mistakes. So when I have an opportunity to meet with customers and partners and they’re thinking about going through the art of the possible. It’s just an amazing time because you no longer challenged by scarcity. You’re challenged by abundance. Can you really focus with all this innovation around you and do the right things at the right time with the right people to create beautiful experiences and, and trust?
I think it was Steve jobs who said, “The most powerful person in business is the storyteller.” And when I think of our founder and what a great storyteller he is, I just aspire to learn as much as I can from people like him. And then take those learnings and try to educate and inspire folks that I have the privilege of intersecting with.
Digital Evangelist as Storyteller
SBT: You’re very modest. You are good at what you do! But you talk about storytelling, that wasn’t something that you just learned once you came on board Salesforce. You already knew how to tell stories and you were good with people. How did that skillset translate into doing what you do today?
Vala Afshar: I appreciate the kind words. I have such battles in terms of imposter syndrome, I often even like events like this especially where I meet these extraordinary people. Today I had the good fortune of interviewing Bret Taylor, our president chief product officer, and he’s an extraordinary person. So between you and I and whoever is watching, I’m sitting on stage as he’s answering my questions, thinking, “What am I doing here with Bret Taylor?”
He created Google Maps. He created the like button when he was CTO at Facebook. Two-time incredible successful exits as an entrepreneur now president of products at Salesforce. I think that once I discovered social, once I started writing regularly and then having a weekly show, I started to appreciate the necessary muscles you need to be able to tell a story.
But since joining Salesforce where I realized that stories are typically about someone else. Stories have a beginning, a middle and an end to really achieve a pinnacle level. You should be thinking about narratives. Narratives are inclusive. Narratives are open-ended. You’re really talking about a journey, not a destination. Again, our founder’s masterful when he talks about the importance of the industrial revolution, importance of sustainability development goals, the importance of trust and core values.
Taking Customers on a Journey
He’s taking you on a journey and you feel part of it. When he talks about our MVPs, our Trailhead initiatives, he uses the word “together”. So he’s not a storyteller. He’s someone who’s masterfully painting a narrative, bringing us all in. As a customer, I felt like I was shaping the Salesforce roadmap. As a single contributor. I feel like I’m shaping the Salesforce roadmap,. whether I am or not I’m feeling it, you know?
There’s so many dimensions to being able to articulate something where people want to believe you, they trust you and then they want to be part of the conversation. They want to be part of the story. And when you can do that, it’s like if you play sports and you’re athletic, you get into a flow state where you just react to things with minimal thinking. It’s just automatic, somewhat autonomous. I think when you get into deep research and connecting people and sharing stories, there’s a potential to get into a flow state as a storyteller.
Again, I’m fortunate because this company is just a cool company. It’s got a good soul. I’m a first gen immigrant, so the soul of a person and a company matters to me a lot. Because I see people that struggle to gain acceptance and to feel like a sense of belonging and nattering and it’s not easy to do. Busyness of life sometimes distract you from things that matter most. This company cares. So I feel like they give me room to grow. And so someday maybe I’ll be a good storyteller. I’m not thinking great. I’m just trying to get to good.
SBT: Yeah, you’re already there.
Vala Afshar: I appreciate it.
Connecting Via Social Media
SBT: But let me ask, because I’m putting you on the spot a little bit because you have a huge social presence. You’re over 400,000 followers on Twitter. Why do you think people follow you?
Vala Afshar: Wow, that’s a great question. I don’t want to make… I don’t want to simplify it. So there’s a fine line between manipulating and inspiring and that line is defined by your intention. So if you can demonstrate positive intention in terms of why you share, to whom you connect with when you have engagements. And honestly, I think if you do that for a sustained period of time, and my guiding principle is simple….
There’s not a lot of wisdom in this, but give without expecting to get. I have absolutely no expectations of anyone that’s connected to me on any social network or business or life. I expect certain characteristics that speak to, are you a loving person? Are you a caring person? Are you humble? Are you smart? Is there a benevolence and integrity that’s part of who you are? And then I naturally gravitate to you.
But I do think the reason people follow me is I’m not trying to sell them anything. It sounds too altruistic maybe because ultimately I think we’re all trying to be remembered. I’d like to be remembered. I know it sounds bad. One of the reasons I wrote a book and I write regularly, I’m certainly active multiple times a day on social.
Digital Evangelists Can Live Forever
When you write something down, you have the potential to live forever. If you use remarkable words, if you share meaningful content, you can touch someone’s life, you know. I have a good fortune, especially at this conference, 170,000 Salesforce advocates. So I’m assuming part of that 400,000 is made up of folks here.
All I know is I love the platform. I’m intrinsically motivated. And you know, I actually believe in impacting people in a positive way. Does that answer your question why they follow? They’re just generous people and they know that I’m not going to push my ideology.
I’m not going to push my company’s products. I shared like how French butter is made. I didn’t know it was like big slabs of butter. Next thing you know, it was like 20,000 retweets of it. I’m like, “Wow. People didn’t know how butter is made. I thought it was only me.”
How to Create a Following in Social Media
Two days ago, I showed octopus swimming and how they can camouflage themselves and exactly match the surface that they’re near, and it has 300,000 retweets and likes. It’s not just leadership business. I didn’t know how butter was made. As long as it interests you, as long as it’s a piece of content where you’re like, I didn’t know this. And by the way, it’s kind of interesting. I encourage you to share.
I spent most of my career consuming how many people worked in your group, how much budget you had, how much income you had. I think we were taught that the lifeblood of your career, your organization, your company is how much you consume. It was only in my 40s when I realized the lifeblood is the movement of resources, movement of insights.
How to Add Value
You’re doing a podcast right now and your goal is to educate people. Hopefully, we’ll achieve that goal. I’m not sure I’m sharing anything insightful, but it’s the movement of insights. So, and I wish I did that in my first 40 years. I wished when I was in school, they would teach you that, learn and share and that’s how you can add value.
I have multiple domain expertise over my career, learned a lot of things. But it was until I broke the first tweet, the first blog, the first book, the first video show where I realized that if you want to have a healthy career, you want to have a healthy company, focus on movement. Movement is the ultimate status symbol. And I think maybe the reputation that, hey, if I follow this guy, I know I’m going to get insights from life and work and leadership and innovation and technology so that maybe the diversity of content.
That’s a good question. I should do a Twitter poll. Why do you follow me? They might get misconstrued and I’ve got a bunch of unfollows like, “Why is he asking?” Or they’re like, “You’re right. I don’t know why I do.” Unfollow.
SBT: No. Nah, nah. Absolutely, I know why.
This is part of the One-on-One Interview series with thought leaders. The transcript has been edited for publication. If it's an audio or video interview, click on the embedded player above, or subscribe via iTunes or via Stitcher.