Welcome to the jungle
Jeff Bezos banned slide decks in favor of narratives at Amazon
Nathan here – Welcome to this year’s final edition of World Builders! I’m taking a few weeks off. Trust me, they’re rare as a creator.
Today’s hook comes from one of my favorite movies. Hit me back with your best guess:
“The key to faking out the parents is the clammy hands. It’s a good non-specific symptom; I’m a big believer in it.”
Last week’s answer: A Tale of Two Cities
Jeff Bezos says, “There is no way to write a six-page narratively structured memo and not have clear thinking.”
Bezos made Amazon into a writing culture by banning powerpoint and forcing the meeting owner to write a six-page memos for attendees to read. Amazon uses a tailored process and specific writing guidelines to make this happen.
Bezos calls the memos “narratives.”
Of course, there’s a ton of conflicting info around what goes into these narrative memos. The most credible source I found was Jesse Freeman, who spent five years at Amazon and writes frequently on Medium.
He says each memo is structured around the same six components:
State of the business
In Jesse’s piece ‘The Anatomy of an Amazon 6-Pager,’ he explains the sections like this:
The structure is remarkably similar to that of a story.
Intro = Hook
Goals and Tenets = Stakes
State = Setting and Backstory
Lessons and Strategic priorities = Plot
The content and delivery are quite different than a classic story, but the similarity in structure is too clear to ignore. That’s on purpose.
Here’s the now famous email from June 9, 2004 when Bezos outlawed PowerPoint in favor of “well structured, narrative text.”
In case the image is too blurry, this is the important bit:
“The reason writing a good 4 page memo is harder than 'writing' a 20 page powerpoint is because the narrative structure of a good memo forces better thought and better understanding of what's more important than what, and how things are related.
Powerpoint-style presentations somehow give permission to gloss over ideas, flatten out any sense of relative importance, and ignore the interconnectedness of ideas.”
To put it simply, you’re writing the story of whatever is being discussed in the meeting. This is hard on the presenter, but much easier on the audience. After all, we’ve learned in stories all our life.
For the first 20 minutes of each meeting, Amazon holds silent meetings. Each attendee gets 20 minutes to read the document. Then they spend the rest of the meeting tearing apart the ideas it presents.
To me, Amazon’s writing and narrative focus does three things:
Prioritizes clear thinking
Puts idea generation on the individual
Makes knowledge transfer easy
Plus, imagine how many pointless calls you’d eliminate if the call owner had to write a six-page paper.
Writing a narrative forces a deep understanding of the ideas presented. If there are errors in your setting, people notice. If there are errors in your plot, people notice. If there are errors in your logic, people notice. Narrative writing forces you to be sharp.
This idea is as true for business writing as it is for fantasy.
Paul Graham put it well:
A company asked why it was so hard to hire a good writer. I told them it was because good writing is an illusion: what people call good writing is actually good thinking, and of course good thinkers are rare.
— Paul Graham (@paulg)
Jul 31, 2022
Amazon’s most famous writing comes in the form of Bezos’ annual shareholder letters. They’re a masterclass in clear, concise, strategic thinking. He practiced what he preached.
Talk in 2023.
What'd you think of today's newsletter?
A message from... Me!
The interest in this tweet blew me away...
One way to become a better storyteller:
Take your two favorite authors. I recommend one non-fiction and one fiction.
Copy, word for word, their best work. Do it by hand.
I chose Paul Kalanithi and Neil Gaiman.
It’s the single exercise that improved my writing the most.
— Nathan Baugh 🗺️ (@nathanbaugh27)
Jan 5, 2023
In my experience, there are two ways to get good at storytelling:
Study the greats (what this newsletter is for)
Practice, practice, practice
I do a lot of practice through StoryWork.
And so many of you liked, commented, and sent me DMs about the practice I decided to turn it into a guided course for you.
Check it out:
🤖 Tech: An AI tool that lets you talk with Socrates or Tom Riddle.
🗞️ Newsletter: Find and negotiate better brand partnerships.
📚 Book: The best story I found this week, Born Standing Up by Steve Martin.
📜 Essay: The US, the inevitable empire.
💎 Gem: The evolution of Pablo Picasso’s self-portraits from age 15 to 90.