Amazon's six-pager

Within Amazon, powerpoint presentations are never used in meetings. Instead, employees are required to write six-page narratives laying out their points in prose and "staff meetings at Amazon begin with 30 minutes of silent reading". This is so strange that I decided to find out more about it, with the end goal of seeing whether we should apply this practice in our business.

First, the benefits.

Benefit #1: Provide more context. The story-telling narrative helps to tie all the numbers and analysis into a coherent story, providing an opportunity to review the core data going into a decision and share the process that leads to the final decision.

Benefit #2: Accelerate knowledge sharing. A collection of these well-written documents enable everyone in the company to internalise a whole new space within 30 minutes of reading. Greatly optimising how quickly and how many different initiatives the team can work on in parallel.

Benefit #3: Encourage learning. The writings established the records for future clinical examination and instituionalised proprietary learning. When the final result is out, it'd be much easier to review and hopefully learn from it by comparing the written records to what actually happened.

Ok now the key pieces ...

Component #1: writing in narrative. Writing is more honest. It's harder to hide half-thought-out arguments in clear, concise and coherent writing. According to Bezos: "When you have to write your ideas out in complete sentences, complete paragraphs it forces a deeper clarity." Andy Grove considered written reports vital because “the author is forced to be more precise than he might be verbally.”

As for the story-telling narrative, Bezos said : "We have so many metrics . . . and the thing I have noticed is that when the anecdotes and the data disagree, the anecdotes are usually right. There’s something wrong with the way you’re measuring." He believes in telling a story vividly, rather than relying on data or graphics. (Have you read of his handstand story in his letter to shareholder?)

Component #2: six page limit. Precision counts. It requires a lot of work for the team to deeply understand their own space, gather the data, understand the operating tenets and be able to communicate all these clearly. The Amazon team member often rewrite the memo several times to make the writing "interesting and easy to read" before presenting to the senior team.

As for the data, the validation, the information that feeds into the narrative that doesn't carry the structure, they go into the appendixes for completeness and cross reference.

Component #3: silent reading session. This is the weirdest meeting I'd imagine. When asked "Why don't you read the memos in advance?" Bezos replied "Time doesn't come from nowhere. This way you know everyone has the time. The author gets the nice warm feeling of seeing their hard work being read."

Here is a recommendation on how to structure a six-pager. FWIW, it's a reasonable starting point that I'd try to base my 2019 annual plans on.

  1. In the past it was like this …
  2. Then something happened …
  3. So now we should do this …
  4. So the future might be like this …