Chapter 5 Amazon’s Six-Page Memo – Strategic Thinking and Writing

CHAPTER 5

Amazon’s Six-Page Memo

Why the Six-Page Memo?

Since 2004, Amazon founder and CEO, Jeff Bezos, has implemented an old-school approach to management, free of the three key mechanisms his company is known for: cloud technology, mobile applications, and sophisticated algorithms. He requires his team to write a six-page paper. Doing so improves meetings in several ways.

It forces deep thinking. The six-page, data-rich narratives that are handed out are not easy to write. Most people spend weeks preparing them in order to be clear. Needless to say, this forces incredible, deep thinking. The document is intended to stand on its own. Amazon’s leaders believe that the quality of leaders’ writing is synonymous with the quality of their thinking.

It respects time. Each meeting starts with silent reading time. The memos are distributed at the meeting with the assumption that people do not have the time to read the document in advance.

It levels the playing field. Think of the introverts on your team who rarely speak during a meeting. Introverted leaders at Amazon “speak” through these well-prepared memos. They get a chance to be heard, even though they may not be the best presenters in the organization.

It leads to good decisions. Because rigorous thinking and writing is required—all Amazon job candidates at a certain level are required to submit writing samples, and junior managers are offered writing style classes—team members are forced to take an idea and think about it completely.

It prevents the popularity bias. The logic of a well-thought-out plan speaks louder than the executive who knows how to “work the halls” and get an idea sold through influence rather than solid, rigorous thinking and clear decision making.

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. Writing a clear, concise, and compelling six-page memo is 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, the author of the memo really has to think through what he or she wants to present.

As Bezos reminds his management team, full sentences are harder to write. They have verbs. The paragraphs have topic sentences. There is no way to write a six-page, narratively structured memo and not have thought it out clearly. In having to write it all down, authors are forced to think out tough questions and formulate clear, persuasive replies, all the while reasoning through the structure and logic. Understanding the structure of the six-page memo will make your writing process more effective.

Structure of the Six-Page Memo

The structure of your six-page memo can vary widely. Here are two useful and simple narrative structures that will really help in the development and understanding of a clear, concise, and compelling six-page memo. The first is called The Impact of Time Approach and the other is The Question and Answer Approach. Use one or both of these when you are outlining your six-page memo and see if one works better than another as you begin the writing process.

Example One: The Impact of Time Approach

In the past it was like this . . .

Then something happened . . .

So now we should do this . . .

So the future might be like this . . .

Example Two: The Question and Answer Approach

The context or question.

Approaches to answer the question—by whom, by which method, and their conclusion.

How is your attempt at answering the question different or the same from previous approaches?

Now what?—that is, what’s in it for the customer and the company, and how does the answer to the question enable innovation on behalf of the customer?

It makes sense that Amazon executives call these six-page memos “narratives.” There’s a conflict to be resolved and a story to convey the solution involved, strategy used, and end result for customers. By taking the time to really think through a six-page narrative, the author makes it exactly clear what needs to be done so there’ll be no questions moving forward.

The Role of Reflection and Self-Awareness

By taking the time to really think through a six-page narrative, the author makes it exactly clear what needs to be done so there’ll be no questions moving forward. Legendary CEO of Intel, Andy Grove, takes Bezos’s view on writing up a notch. Grove considers written reports vital because “the author is forced to be more precise than he might be verbally.”1 In fact, he 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.”2

Bezos’s and Grove’s imposition of writing as a medium of presentation 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, where feedback can be otherwise rather scarce in the workplace but integral to improving the quality of your thought and action. Encouraging reports 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, collaborate, and lead at work!

The Power of Narrative

The six-page narrative memo idea has been held as an example of a persuasive communication and management technique in today’s hyper-competitive, dynamic, and ever-changing global marketplace. Greater understanding emerges, when a group of people have to think through what something means, instead of having someone present what it means to them. I fear, however, that people will pick up Amazon’s approach and miss the opportunity to make it really meaningful by excluding the narrative structure. Without the narrative, you just get a series of disconnected facts and opinions. Collectively, it won’t make sense. Here are three reasons for the power of narrative.

First, our brains are hardwired for narrative. Narrative storytelling might not have been as critical as food for our survival as a species, but it comes close. Anthropologists say that when humans gained control of fire, it marked a major milestone in human development. Our ancestors were able to cook food, which was a big plus. But it also had a second benefit. People sat around campfires swapping stories. Stories served as instruction, warning, and inspiration. Neuroscientists have confirmed what we’ve known for centuries: The human brain is wired for story. We process our world in the narrative mode, we talk in narrative and—most important for leadership—people recall and retain information more effectively when it’s presented in the form of a story, not bullet points.

Second, stories are persuasive. And they are far more persuasive than bullet points on a PowerPoint slide! As mentioned elsewhere in this book, Aristotle is the father of persuasion. More than 2,000 years ago he revealed the three elements that all persuasive arguments must have to be effective. He called these elements “appeals” known as ethos, logos, and pathos. Ethos is character and credibility. Logos is logic—an argument must appeal to reason. However, ethos and logos are irrelevant in the absence of pathos—emotion. Neuroscientists have found that emotion is the fastest path to the brain. In other words, if you want your ideas to spread, a story is the single best vehicle we have to transfer that idea to another person.

“I’m actually a big fan of anecdotes in business,” Bezos said at the leadership forum, as he explained why he reads customer emails and forwards them to the appropriate executive.3 Often, he says, the customer anecdotes are more insightful than data. Amazon uses “a ton of metrics” to measure success, explained Bezos. “I’ve noticed when the anecdotes and the metrics disagree, the anecdotes are usually right,” he noted. “That’s why it’s so important to check that data with your intuition and instincts, and you need to teach that to executives and junior executives.” Bezos clearly understands that logic (data) must be married with pathos (narrative) to be successful.4

Finally, bullet points are the least effective way of sharing ideas. Bullets don’t inspire. Stories do. Simply put, the brain is not built to retain information that’s structured as bullet points on a slide. It’s well known among neuroscientists that we recall things much better when we see pictures of the object or topic than when we read text on a slide. Visuals are much, much more powerful than text alone. That’s why, if you choose to use slides, use more pictures than words—and don’t use bullet points. Ever.

Jeff Bezos’ 2018 Letter to Shareholders

In his 2018 Letter to Shareholders—the twentieth year in a row he had published such a letter—Bezos highlighted the following four dynamics that provide insight into Amazon’s culture in general and the rationale behind the six-page memo specifically. After congratulating the company for reaching first place in the American Customer Satisfaction Index and the top prize in the United Kingdom. Customer Satisfaction Index, Bezos went on to discuss specific elements of Amazon’s culture.5

  1. Have a Bias Toward Action: “One thing I love about customers is that they are divinely discontent. Their expectations are never static—they go up. It’s human nature. We didn’t ascend from our hunter-gatherer days by being satisfied. People have a voracious appetite for a better way, and yesterday’s ‘wow’ quickly becomes today’s ‘ordinary.’ Have a bias towards action so that you continually strive to create something new. You cannot rest on your laurels in this world. Customers won’t have it.”6

  2. Set High Standards: Bezos stressed that having high standards widely deployed across all departments, levels, and functional areas remains critical to Amazon’s past, current, and future success.

  3. Remain Humble: Bezos understood that it is possible to be a person with high standards in general and still have debilitating blind spots. Understanding this point is important because it keeps you humble. There can be whole arenas of endeavor where you may not even know that your standards are low or nonexistent, and certainly not world class. It’s critical to be open to that likelihood and recognize the level of work required.

  4. Work Hard at Hard Work: To achieve high standards it is imperative to know how much work is involved. How much will it cost? What are the internal and external resources required to achieve the high levels? How many people are required to work on the project and for how long?

These four dynamics—don’t rest on your laurels, set high standards, remain humble, and work hard at hard work—factor into the six-page memo. The six-page memo demands that executives focus on a topic that will help Amazon transcend the ordinary. The memo requires a high standard of research and writing. The memo forces the author/s to remain humble and receive feedback in order to grow both personally and professionally. And the memo is a demonstration of working hard at hard work.

As Bezos noted in his 2018 Letter to Shareholders: “We don’t do PowerPoint presentations at Amazon. Instead, we write narratively structured six-page memos. We silently read one at the beginning of each meeting in a kind of ‘study hall.’ 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.”7

How does Bezos differentiate between a great memo and an average one? While that’s subjective, one thing is clear to Bezos and his management team; “They know it when they see it. The standard is there, and it is real, even if it’s not easily describable. Here’s what we’ve figured out. Often, when a memo isn’t great, it’s not the writer’s inability to recognize the high standard, but instead a wrong expectation on scope: they mistakenly believe a high-standards, six-page memo can be written in one or two days or even a few hours, when really it might take a week or more!”8

You need to understand that a clear, concise, and compelling six-page memo will take you at least a week to write. Ideally you spend two weeks on it if possible. Unlike a college paper that gets graded, often on a curve or the kindness of the professor, a six-page memo for Amazon, or any other organization for that matter, will be reviewed by your colleagues looking for guidance. Writing for the real world is often very different from submitting your work in college. You need to be ready for immediate and perhaps even constructive feedback. Hopefully, your colleagues understand the difference between critiquing and being critical. Strategic thinking and writing are at the forefront of business today, and they are a far cry from being an academic exercise. Be ready. Prepare accordingly.

1S. J. Oakley. October, 2015. “Jeff Bezos’s Peculiar Management Tool for Self-Discipline,” LinkedIn. https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/jeff-bezoss-peculiar-management-tool-self-discipline-stanley-j-oakley, (date accessed June 12, 2018).

2Ibid.

3C. Gallo. April, 2018. “Jeff Bezos Banned PowerPoint in Meetings,” Inc.

4Ibid.

5Excerpts from Jeff Bezos’ 2018 letter to shareholders. For the complete letter visit https://tinyurl.com/amazon6pages

6Ibid.

7Ibid.

8Ibid.