Former Amazon executive John Rossman recalls attending meetings of the company’s senior leaders (S-teams) and sitting in silence for fifteen or twenty minutes before an active discussion began. During that silence, CEO Jeff Bezos and the other senior leaders were participating in a ritual that could radically transform your business—it did for Amazon.
Amazon’s leadership meetings begin with silence because everyone’s reading. They are reading memos written like stories. There are no PowerPoints allowed in the meeting. Bezos wants to read narratives instead.
I caught up with Rossman recently to discuss his new book, Think Like Amazon. Rossman launched the MarketPlace business, which now accounts for more than 50 percent of all units sold at Amazon. He says that thinking like Amazon starts with writing like Amazon. “At Amazon, leaders write narratives for all plans, proposals, services, and investments.”
Rossman says that replacing PowerPoint presentations with memos helps the participants in a meeting to develop clarity about the project or proposal under consideration. “It forces leaders to put away their computers, to put away their phones, to not be dumbed down by PowerPoint. It’s forces them to read it, to grok it, to deeply understand it so they can have a much better discussion.”
In his 2017 shareholder letter, Bezos offered some guidance on how to craft a narrative. It takes time and practice, he advised. Don’t expect to become a writing expert overnight. Bezos compared writing a memo to learning how to do a free-standing handstand. Most people think they could learn to do it in a few hours or days. In reality, it could take months of practice. According to Bezos, leaders tasked with writing memos “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!”
Rossman agrees. “You can’t rush great narratives because you can’t rush great thinking and communications,” he says. While some memos are poorly written, others deliver the “clarity of angels singing,” according to Bezos.
Clarity is, indeed, the goal of well-written memos. A PowerPoint presentation typically consists of bullet points representing incomplete sentences, and a barrage of text, data and charts. Clarity isn’t easy to achieve. A narratively structured memo, on the other hand, encourages the writer to think deeply—and clearly—about the customer’s experience through every stage of the process. “It makes the customer’s experience visceral where you can see it, feel it and touch it,” says Rossman.
If you’d like to practice narratively-structured memos in your meetings, Rossman suggests that you begin by answering the following questions about your idea.
1). Who are the customers?
2). What benefits are we bringing to them?
3). What problems are we solving for them?
4). Why would this idea delight them?
Your ‘customer’ might be different than Amazon. Maybe it’s not a person buying a product online. A customer might be a potential investor, an employee, or a partner—anyone you need to persuade. Regardless, the questions still apply. A well-structured memo identifies the target audience and clearly states the benefits they’ll get from adopting your idea, the problems your idea solves and why your ultimate audience will be delighted by adopting your idea. “Writing ideas and proposals in complete narratives results in better ideas, more clarity on the ideas, and better conversation on the ideas,” says Rossman.
Above all, Rossman has this advice: “For your projects, investments, strategies, and executive topics, ditch the PowerPoint presentations, and force teams to put their ideas and plans in writing.”
Bezos once said the meeting culture might look ‘weird’ to newcomers, but it makes perfect sense to start meetings with stories instead of bullet points. While the tools we use to communicate ideas have changed; the human brain has not. When our ancestors gathered around a campfire to share stories, they didn’t speak in bullet points. They told stories with a beginning, middle and end. They spoke in full sentences to transport their listeners to another time or place.
We’re hardwired for structured stories, not random bullet points. Experiment with story memos in your next meeting. You might be surprised at the clarity it brings.
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