We originally published this piece in 2017. Two years later, we added fresh advice for managers.
The modern workplace’s vogue is informal information exchange. We sit in open floor plan offices so that we can spontaneously collide, chat, and collaborate. An office setup for generating ideas can be fizzy and energizing, though when sparks aren’t flying, the colliding can be noisy and distracting.
Jeff Bezos takes a totally different approach to management at Amazon meetings — far from that madding crowd. He has a contrarian management technique that’s peculiarly old school — write it down.
[Image via Forbes]
In senior executive meetings at Amazon, before any conversation or discussion begins, everyone sits for 30 minutes in total silence, carefully reading six-page printed memos. Reading together in the meeting guarantees everyone’s undivided attention to the issues at hand, but the real magic happens before the meeting ever starts. It happens when the author is writing the memo.
Why You Need Structural Narrative
It’s unconventional, tough, and incredibly time-consuming. But Bezos’s management trick does one thing incredibly well — by forcing his team to use the medium of the written word to prep for Amazon meetings, the author of the memo really has to think through what he or she wants to present.
Full sentences are harder to write, [Bezos] says. They have verbs. The paragraphs have topic sentences. There is no way to write a six-page, narratively structured memo and not have clear thinking.
(via Amazon’s Jeff Bezos: The ultimate disrupter – Fortune Management)
By having to write it all down — as opposed to dashing off quick bullet points or cobbling together powerpoint slides — authors are forced to think out tough questions and formulate clear, persuasive replies, all while reasoning through the structure and logic.
It makes sense that Amazon executives call these six-page memos “narratives.” There’s a conflict to be resolved and a story to reach the company’s happy endings of solutions, innovation, and happy customers. Specifically, the narrative has four main elements.
[The six-page narratives are structured] like a dissertation defense:
1) The context or question
2) Approaches to answer the question – by whom, by which method, and their conclusions
3) How is your attempt at answering the question different or the same from previous approaches
4) Now what? – that is, what’s in it for the customer, the company, and how does the answer to the question enable innovation on behalf of the customer?
(via Amazon: How are the six-page “narratives” structured in Jeff Bezos’ S-Team meetings? – Quora)
Even if it’s not a popular tactic, by taking the time to really think through a six-page narrative, the author makes it clear what exactly needs to be done, so there’ll be no questions moving forward.
Why Reading the Report Isn’t Important
Legendary CEO of Intel, Andy Grove, takes Bezos’s view on writing for Amazon meetings up a notch. Grove considers written reports vital because “the author is forced to be more precise than he [or she] might be verbally.” In fact, Grove considers the whole exercise of writing “more of a medium of self-discipline than a way to communicate information,” so much so that his ultimate conviction was that “writing the report is important; reading it often is not.”
[Image via Giphy]
Bezos and Grove’s imposition of writing as a medium turns self-discipline and personal reflection into a distributed process. Reflection is a fundamental way to think through and give yourself feedback on your work, when feedback can otherwise be rather scarce in the workplace but is integral to improving the quality of your thoughts and actions. Encouraging reports in order to engage in the reflective process of writing helps each and every individual autonomously work toward becoming a master of their craft.
So reflect and write it down, verbs and all. You’ll be better prepared and excited to present, share, collide, collaborate, and lead at work!
How 6 Successful Entrepreneurs Hone This Skill
Okay, that may be easier said than done. Writing is a muscle that needs exercising. If it’s not already something you do regularly, it can be challenging to just dive in. Start gradually and practice. Here’s how six successful entrepreneurs incorporate writing into their routine.
Write at the same time every day
Writing at the same time every day enhances concentration and motivation.
This is probably why Michael Karnjanaprakorn, CEO of Skillshare, blocks off one hour every morning during the week for “Quiet Time.” He uses this time to write down daily priorities and to journal. Michael says that his brain and energy levels operate at full capacity in the morning, so it’s the perfect time for him to write and think deeply.
I like to focus on the hardest things at the start of the day. It prevents decision fatigue and a sense of accomplishment throughout the day.
Another time of the day might work better for you, but the point is to block off the same time every day to write.
Let your subconscious take over
Tim Ferriss uses his journaling time to get out unregulated thoughts, which he says helps clear his mind, so he can turn his focus to what he has to accomplish that day — to put more bluntly in Ferriss-speak, so he “can move on with his f***ing day.”
He writes that he’s actually subconsciously figuring stuff out when he journals, leading him to be more productive.
In his unregulated flurry, he usually ends up addressing three to five problems that have been making him feel anxious and uncomfortable. Typically, they’re tasks that have been shuffled from one day’s to-do list to the next.
If this starts to happen to you, Tim recommends that for each item you ask yourself:
– “If this were the only thing I accomplished today, would I be satisfied with my day?”
– “Will moving this forward make all the other to-do’s unimportant or easier to knock off later?”
For each of the items you answered “yes” to, block out two to three hours to focus on only one of them for the day. The rest can remain urgent to-do’s for the next day. This daily practice can actually solve some of your most annoying problems.
Journal away from the office
He says that his best ideas come when he’s not in the office. So he spends a day outdoors and bouncing around coffee shops, letting the environment around him inspire thought. He moves locations whenever he feels stuck. He always brings his journal.
Writing is a powerful way to capture your ideas and get them into an organized, actionable form. The key is not to censor or judge yourself — just spill your thoughts onto paper without criticism or even evaluation. There are many ways to do this. I’m a very visual person, so my notebook is filled with pictures, arrows and words. Find what works best for you.
Sometimes a change of environment is all it takes to start getting your thoughts down on paper. You might be surprised that some of your best ideas will come out this way.
Give yourself prompts
To become more comfortable with structured writing, assign a purpose to some of your sessions. One great prompt is to spend some time writing your goals. Goals force you to look inward and flesh out important ideas that have yet to take concrete form.
- Step 1: Set a timer for three minutes and start writing down your goals that come from the heart, without worrying about money and other limitations.
- Step 2: Write eight to ten goals you want to achieve and allow them to have some balance (work, life, health goals). Circle the one goal that you think would have a domino effect and make all the others possible.
- Step 3: Take your “game-changer goal” and write down 30-50 things you need to start doing to make this goal come true.
You can periodically return to reevaluate and write down your progress as you start making changes toward your goal.
Carve out time to revise
Editing doesn’t always require the same creative juices as an initial draft; however, the discipline you build by shaping raw thoughts into something more logical and coherent — perhaps even publishable in a blog post — can be well worth it.
William Zinsser, author of On Writing Well, famously said:
Rewriting is where the game is won or lost; rewriting is the essence of writing.
And Fred Wilson of Union Square Ventures revises as he writes almost daily on his blog in order to whittle down his thoughts “clearly and concisely.” His oeuvre of hundreds of concise, well-articulated posts over decades is a testament to his ability to balance editing with writing.
One of the most challenging and rewarding parts of writing is that it affords the writer a chance to look at herself or himself in the mirror. When you place your innermost thoughts onto a physical page, it reflects your psyche.
This might sound dark and daunting, but for an entrepreneur who constantly grapples with unique situations and challenges — it can also be therapeutic.
Jessica Livingston, founding partner of Y Combinator, conducted and collected interviews with many now-successful entrepreneurs and turned these honest answers into Founders at Work.
In the end, these vulnerable answers became valuable advice for readers.
At Amazon Meetings and Beyond: The Pen Is Mightier Than the Word
Writing needs to be a part of your routine in order to experience all of its benefits. The more you write, the more your ideas and goals will align and be reflected in the work you do every day.
Start by journaling regularly. As you practice over time and begin incorporating structure, you can start introducing narrative into your company communication — starting as small as crafting great memos.
Honing in on your writing skills will help you tackle important problems as you’ll be quite literally forced to spell out those tough questions in a logical and fluid way. You’ll have a better grasp of what’s going on and set the stage for an improved meeting culture, which will ultimately make you a better leader.