Unleashing the Potency of Amazon’s Engaging Written Narratives

**A Deep Dive into Amazon’s Writing Culture**

Understanding unique product cultures and how they contribute to the success of companies is a fascination of mine. One company that stands out in this regard is Amazon, known for its unique writing culture. In their new book, “Working Backwards,” Colin Bryar and Bill Carr provide insight into the origins, challenges, benefits, and competitive advantage of Amazon’s writing culture. This article aims to share what I’ve learned from the book, particularly for those considering implementing a writing culture in their own product teams.

**The Transition from PowerPoint to Written Narratives**
In the early years, Amazon relied heavily on traditional PowerPoint-driven meetings. However, by 2004, Jeff Bezos, the CEO of Amazon, grew frustrated with the lack of productivity in executive meetings with product teams. The Amazon executive team identified the format of these meetings, especially the limitations of PowerPoint in developing and communicating ideas, as a major obstacle. PowerPoint’s low information density encouraged presenters to condense information on each slide, often leading to verbal fill-ins and reliance on presentation skills rather than the merit of the ideas presented. This created room for biased decision-making and ineffective discussions.

**The Awakening: Edward Tufte’s Essay**
In 2004, Bezos and his team came across an essay by Edward Tufte that shed light on their frustrations. Titled “The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint: Pitching Out Corrupts Within,” Tufte highlighted the drawbacks of bullet lists and suggested an alternative approach. He recommended using paper handouts that incorporate words, numbers, data graphics, and images, allowing viewers to contextualize and compare information. Tufte’s solution was simple: replace PowerPoint with Microsoft Word as the dominant presentation tool. Bezos immediately embraced this approach and communicated the change to the entire team.

**The Rise of Written Narratives**
Following Bezos’ order, Amazon adopted the written narrative as the primary deliverable in executive meetings. These narratives were limited to six pages (single-spaced, 11 point font) known as six-pagers, with optional appendices for additional information. Executives would start meetings with a silent reading period to review the narratives and take notes, followed by questions, comments, and discussion.

**Benefits of Written Narratives**
Amazon quickly recognized the advantages of the transition to written narratives. The high information density of written narratives allowed decision-makers to consume more information in a meeting compared to PowerPoint slides. Written narratives had 7-9 times the information density per page, based on word count, and people generally read three times faster than the speed of a typical presenter. This facilitated better-informed decision-making and more detailed feedback, providing a competitive advantage over companies relying on low-bandwidth communication methods.

**Overcoming Initial Resistance**
Despite the benefits, many teams initially resisted the transition to written narratives. They found it more challenging to create narratives compared to PowerPoint presentations. To address this resistance, Bezos emphasized the value of narratives by emphasizing how the structure of a good memo forces better thought and understanding of ideas, avoiding the glossing over of important points. By shifting focus from graphic design and rehearsing presentations to improving the quality of narratives, teams were able to present their ideas more accurately.

**Added Value of Narrative Reviews**
Narrative presentations added value in multiple ways. Unlike PowerPoint presentations, narratives left no room for glossing over important topics since reviewers would thoroughly dissect the document. The process of writing narratives also encouraged teams to anticipate objections, concerns, and alternative viewpoints, enhancing the overall quality of the arguments presented. Additionally, reading excellent narratives enabled teams to learn from one another in ways not possible with PowerPoint presentations.

**Product Proposals: PR/FAQs**
Within Amazon, narratives were utilized to describe, review, or propose various aspects of the business. However, their greatest value was evident in the creation of new product ideas through a specific type of narrative known as PR/FAQs (Press Release/Frequently Asked Questions). These narratives began with a press release-style description of the product’s value from the customer’s perspective, followed by external and internal FAQs addressing questions from customers, the press, and the team. While most PR/FAQs did not receive approval, this intentional screening ensured that only the highest-impact products were developed, preserving valuable resources.

Amazon’s transition from PowerPoint to written narratives revolutionized its product development process and contributed significantly to its competitive advantage. By increasing information density and facilitating better-informed decision-making, Amazon’s writing culture has streamlined the communication of ideas within the company. While the shift may present challenges, it offers immense benefits for product teams considering implementing a writing culture. Incorporating written narratives can improve the quality of ideas, encourage critical thinking, and result in higher-impact products for customers and businesses alike.

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