Bad Managers Talk, Good Managers Write

The exemplary manager is often shown as the outgoing guy that gives his team pep talks and high fives. In truth, though, that stereotype couldn’t be farther from the truth.

To three highly effective, seasoned, and successful executives, being a good talker isn’t just overvalued, it can actually be detrimental. Rather, there’s a subtle, often-overlooked ability that’s one of the most vital skills you can have as a managerthe ability to write.

why good managers write

“Written communication to engineering is superior [to verbal communication] because it is more consistent across an entire product team, it is more lasting, it raises accountability.” 

Ben Horowitz, Andreessen Horowitz

When managers write, you create work product — white papers, product requirement documents, FAQs, presentations — that lasts and is accessible to everyone in the organization. From marketing to sales to QA to engineering, everyone has a document off which they can work and consult.

The upshot is that the manager also takes public responsibility for what happens when the rest of the team executes on the point of view taken by the documents. That ratchets up accountability through the organization.

To Horowitz, the distinction between written and verbal communication is stark and, in fact, it’s what separates the wheat from the chaff. Good managers want to be held accountable and aren’t looking for ways to weasel out of responsibility. And so, good managers write, while “[b]ad product managers voice their opinion verbally and lament … the ‘powers that be’.”

why good managers write quote

“There is no way to write a six-page, narratively structured memo and not have clear thinking.” 

Jeff Bezos, Amazon

Jeff Bezos values writing over talking to such an extreme that in Amazon senior executive meetings, “before any conversation or discussion begins, everyone sits for 30 minutes in total silence, carefully reading six-page printed memos.”

That’s because, to Bezos, just talking and having a PowerPoint presentation concealed lazy thinking. It was easy to jump from one bullet point to the next without having expressed a complete thought. “I don’t want this place to become a country club,” Bezos said, as he pushed his team to think more deeply.

Writing out full sentences enforces clear thinking, but more than that, it’s a compelling method to drive memo authors to write in a narrative structure that reinforces a distinctly Amazon way of thinking — its obsession with the customer. In every memo that could potentially address any issue in the company, the memo author must answer the question: “What’s in it for the customer, the company, and how does the answer to the question enable innovation on behalf of the customer?”

why good managers write quote

“Reports are more a medium of self-discipline than a way to communicate information.” 

Andy Grove, Intel

Like Bezos, Grove finds value in the process of writing. The surprising thing, then, is that reading what’s written isn’t as important to Grove.

The main point of writing is to force yourself “to be more precise than [you] might be verbally.” That self-imposed precision, according to Grove, is a “safety-net” for your thought process that you should always be doing to “catch … anything you may have missed.”

When you talk, there are often “ad hoc inputs,” meaning whatever pops into your head often comes out of your mouth. When managers write, you question those inputs and that reflection drives you to make better decisions.

Accountability, coherence of thought and planning, and commitment to vision and mission are amazing benefits of what too many consider a ho-hum, even old-fashioned, tool.

* * *

The importance of writing over talking is the reason why Phil Libin, founder and CEO of Evernote, makes the ability to write an essential qualification during the hiring process.  He’ll only hire people who can write.  That’s why, in lieu of a lengthy verbal interview, Libin asks candidates to stop talking and “write a few paragraphs in normal English.”

The exercise shows Libin whether candidates can communicate using the written word, but Libin had an additional insight—that writing gets closer to revealing the candidate’s true personality.

“I find that you can tell a lot more about a person’s personality from a few paragraphs of their writing than from a lengthy verbal interview,” Libin said. “Many people can pretend to be something they’re not in person, but very few people can do so in writing.”

  • Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt

    I’ve always been happy that my STEM kids had Verbal SAT scores as high as or higher than the math scores which got them into top colleges – and that they all write well. And insist on documenting their work. You can’t write well if you can’t think clearly, but thinking clearly leading to clear writing isn’t necessarily automatic. It takes practice – and a work environment that values it.

    It is a huge contribution to the people who have to use that work after the originators have left the company, among other things.

  • Visakan @ ReferralCandy

    I really enjoyed this. I am finding, on hindsight, that having written standards would’ve saved me a lot of time in a lot of things. I thought it was beneath me, but really, I was avoiding it because it’s a challenge to express yourself in such precise terms.

  • Jay Oza

    Not one interview that I have ever had has writing ever come up. This is not that important as the writer asserts.

    • Craig LaPlante


      I can see why you would that and I do think taking it to a 6 page memo may be farther than needed. However, while individuals may “succeed” without writing, an organization will absolutely not reach its potential if key things are not written down – such as decisions and follow up actions with PPRs and dates after all meetings. It is all about accountability and clarity.

  • Abergara

    Good written communication directly affects marketing success. Unfortunately, writing is a skill that’s dwindling in business nowadays with the short-sighted belief that reading and writing is a waste of time. In the end, however, time and dollars are wasted in the misunderstanding and misdirection that occur along the course of an initiative that began without a written guide.

  • Roberto Bera

    It depends….
    Well, writing down something, you clarify your thoughts. But writing a text, you have to do an abstraction step from the matter, reading needs an other step. Let’s call X our subject. Writing is W(X) , reading is R(W(X)) so:
    1) X is not equal R(W(X))
    2) R(W(X)) may be different form reader A to reader B… and so on (see the war of religion in XVI sec in Europe for bible interpretation….)

    More: talking, if you aren’t very dumb, you can immediatly get feedback of your talk. Writing you can’t.
    So, write is useful, but not the only way to communicate.

  • gattidavid

    I watched those vides and also after reading some books and my own experience i became a good manager and here is my experience:

  • Margery Chandler

    Great post on the importance of business writing, although I would say both writing and speaking have their own plus points. You do have to be communicative in order to get your point across your employees. A verbal easiness is required for you to manage them. Over all, the points are nicely put! Thanks!

  • overhere2000

    Writing has zero importance to your career. Image is everything and good speaking and presentation skills trump this nonsense when it comes to your career.

  • Sebastian Szachnowski

    Thank you for this really good post and for including all those marvellous examples.

    Good writing communication is an important competence but I wouldn’t dare to rely only on that. Peter Drucker said that people were readers or listeners and rarely both. Therefore I’m adjusting my communication depending from whom I’m approaching.

    Besides Top Executives can afford an eccentricity. I can’t. 😉

  • BeevaloBill

    “There is no way to write a six-page, narratively structured memo and not have clear thinking.”
    Jeff Bezos is a genius, but I have to disagree with this quote. I would proffer that, more often than not, the fact that a memo is a six pages is an indication that it lacks clear thinking. Clarity of thought is found in concise, direct communications – written or verbal.

    That said, the premise of this article is spot on – especially in those environments where substance and unambiguous communications are valued.

  • Sathyanand S

    Thank you Walter for such a great article!

    The importance of writing cannot of overstated, especially in a knowledge economy like ours.

    However, I am really glad that you were able to make the connection between writing and clarity of thinking.

    While I agree that clear writing is the result of clear thinking, I would also push the thinking and recommend using Writing as a ‘Thinking Tool’.

    ~ Sathya