The Power of Amazon's Written Memos

How to Catapult Performance

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Today we're diving into Amazon's written narrative culture to find out how you can catapult productivity and performance.

It’s time to strap in and enjoy.

Read time: 3 minutes

The Power of Amazon's Written Memos

"The reason writing a good 4 page memo is harder than "writing" a 20 page powerpoint is because the narrative structure of a good memo forces better thought and better understanding of what's more important than what, and how things are related.Powerpoint-style presentations somehow give permission to gloss over ideas, flatten out any sense of relative importance, and ignore the interconnectedness of ideas."

Jeff Bezos

We all know that Microsoft PowerPoint is the most popular presentation software in the world. However in 2004, Jeff Bezos banned it from Amazon executive meetings.

For the first 10 years of Amazon, the company had been dominated by traditional PowerPoint culture. But this frustrated Bezos with the lack of productivity in his 60-minute long executive meetings.

Something had to change.

So on June 9th 2004, Jeff Bezos sent an email to his senior team. It was titled: "No powerpoint presentations from now on..." From that point on, Amazon followed one simple rule. Don't start a meeting unless you're prepared with a written narrative.

Meetings were changed for good:

  • Start with a silent 20 minute reading period of the narrative

  • All participants digest and take notes

  • Followed by questions, comments, and a discussion

Amazon quickly realised the benefits. 

1. Efficiency

Memos give you a chance to get up to speed on a topic before the meeting begins.

If everyone's on the same page, you can hit the ground running.

That saves you valuable time.

2. Better discussions

Rather than flicking through data-thin slides, memos make the discussion more robust.

Everyone starts with the same information and has the chance to process it in the 20 minutes of reading time.

Individuals have full opportunity to make informed points. 

3. Clarity of thought

PowerPoint slides list fast facts and figures.

Justification is given by the presenter and can be lost in discussion.

To write a well-constructed memo, you need to take the appropriate time to articulate your point of view, supported by reason.

Even better– if a colleague misses a meeting, the memo provides full picture context.

Keeping a historical record of your memos can help your team in training, learning and leading.

I've personally found great benefit using written narratives over making presentations when building Tribescaler.

What was once countless hours spent arranging graphics and correcting formatting can now be spent improving your ideas in the narrative. This is scary at first. I've stared at countless blank pages. But overcoming that initial friction and putting thoughts to paper gives you huge clarity on the effect you're trying to achieve.

Finally, learning from others is something I am hugely grateful for. When I read their rationale through a written narrative, I get a well-rounded view on the points they are building their argument on. This would otherwise not have been possible through a detail-thin slide.

Overall, narratives and powerpoint presentations both have their merits. I'm not saying one is right and the other is wrong. Each tool can be a powerful lever to help tell a story, win a deal or raise financing when used correctly.

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    That’s all for today friends!

    As always feel free to reply to this email or reach out @thealexbanks as I’d love to hear your feedback.

    Thanks for reading and I’ll catch you next Monday.


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