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Jeff Bezos on Narratives in Business Decision Making

Another insight I wanted to share from the most recent annual letter to Amazon shareholders:

Six-Page Narratives

We don’t do PowerPoint (or any other slide-oriented) presentations at Amazon. Instead, we write narratively structured six-page memos. We silently read one at the beginning of each meeting in a kind of “study hall.” Not surprisingly, the quality of these memos varies widely. Some have the clarity of angels singing. They are brilliant and thoughtful and set up the meeting for high-quality discussion. Sometimes they come in at the other end of the spectrum…

It would be extremely hard to write down the detailed requirements that make up a great memo. Nevertheless, I find that much of the time, readers react to great memos very similarly. They know it when they see it. The standard is there, and it is real, even if it’s not easily describable.

Here’s what we’ve figured out. Often, when a memo isn’t great, it’s not the writer’s inability to recognize the high standard, but instead a wrong expectation on scope: they mistakenly believe a high-standards, six-page memo can be written in one or two days or even a few hours, when really it might take a week or more! …The great memos are written and re-written, shared with colleagues who are asked to improve the work, set aside for a couple of days, and then edited again with a fresh mind. They simply can’t be done in a day or two. The key point here is that you can improve results through the simple act of teaching scope – that a great memo probably should take a week or more.

Skill

Beyond recognizing the standard and having realistic expectations on scope, how about skill? Surely to write a world-class memo, you have to be an extremely skilled writer? Is it another required element? In my view, not so much, at least not for the individual in the context of teams. The football coach doesn’t need to be able to throw, and a film director doesn’t need to be able to act. But they both do need to recognize high standards for those things and teach realistic expectations on scope. Even in the example of writing a six-page memo, that’s teamwork. Someone on the team needs to have the skill, but it doesn’t have to be you. (As a side note, by tradition at Amazon, authors’ names never appear on the memos – the memo is from the whole team.)

PowerPoint decks are easy to generate. In the world of survey research, almost every survey tool will generate a slide per question, including our own analytical engine, ResearchStory. (In fact, we include such decks for free with every survey project we do.)

PowerPoint decks are easy to read at a glance. People can take in information much faster visually than they can by reading.

PowerPoint decks are shallow. Because they are so easy to generate, and so visually rich, most decks (ours included) provide the top-line results. The results that can be easily automated. (We've automated some in-depth findings as well, for those problems we could bend to the will of algorithms.)

We do provide written reports to about a fifth of our customers. While the basic structure is automated, our analysts work to tie together different questions in larger, overarching themes and trends. This takes time and many hands: a manager provides the overall outline, the analyst executes it, the manager then reviews and revises, then a copy editor proofreads the report, and a fact-checker verifies the findings. Teams are essential, and rushing the process typically reduces the quality, as Jeff Bezos points out above.

Writing powerful narratives is time-consuming and challenging. But by fostering more difficult thinking about the issues at hand, everyone benefits. Meetings are more productive, and decisions are informed by depth rather than surface.

Have an important decision to make? Be like Bezos: next time demand a narrative rather than a deck.

 

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