What Amazon learned by having employees write stories instead of doing PowerPoints

Unleashing the literary giant in all of us.
Unleashing the literary giant in all of us.
Image: REUTERS/Joshua Roberts
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In his latest letter to shareholders, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos details the company’s march to global domination. The company employs 560,000 Amazonians—aka people—and Amazon Prime now has more than 100 million members, a figure greater than the population of Germany, Vietnam, or Egypt.

What’s the key to the company’s success? High expectations, according to Bezos. He explains that in order for high expectations to work, they have to meet several standards. “They are teachable, they are domain specific, you must recognize them, and you must explicitly coach realistic scope,” so people know what it takes to reach them, he writes.

Bezos goes on to explain how high expectations apply to a staple of Amazon operations: The company memo.  Amazonians do not come to meetings armed with PowerPoint presentations or any other kind of slide presentation, but with “narratively structured six-page memos,” which attendees read silently at the start of the meeting. He writes: 

Not surprisingly, the quality of these memos varies widely. Some have the clarity of angels singing. They are brilliant and thoughtful and set up the meeting for high-quality discussion. Sometimes they come in at the other end of the spectrum.

Bezos admits that it’s pretty tough to identify exactly what it takes to write more like angels singing than fingernails screeching along a blackboard. But he does know one thing: it takes time. In other words, Amazon employees need to understand the scope of the expectation.

The great memos are written and re-written, shared with colleagues who are asked to improve the work, set aside for a couple of days, and then edited again with a fresh mind. They simply can’t be done in a day or two. 

Lest this scare bad writers away from applying to Amazon, fret not. It is teams that submit memos, anonymously, rather than individuals. So if you can’t write your way out of a paper bag, hopefully you can spot good writing when you see it—and maybe offer to buy your teammates some beer.