Writing narratives forces me to focus on the content and the story. The writing process itself triggers a deep thought process and helps me to iteratively improve the story.

A narrative can have different structures. One example is:

  • In the past it was like this …
  • Then something happened …
  • So now we should do this …
  • So the future might be like this …

Another example of the structure of a narrative:

  1. Context (or question)
  2. Approach (Approaches to answer the question – by whom, by which method, and their conclusions)
  3. Differentiation (How is your attempt at answering the question different or same from previous approaches? Also compared to competitors)
  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?)
  5. Appendix

So, why is this 4-6 page memo concept effective in improving meeting outputs?

  • It forces deep thinking. The 6-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 the quality of a leader’s writing is synonymous with the quality of their thinking.
  • It respects time. Each meeting starts with silent reading time. When I asked why they don’t send out the narratives in advance, the response was, “we know people don’t 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 presenter 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.

“I didn’t realize how deeply the document culture runs at Amazon. Most meetings have a document attached to them, from hiring meetings to weekly business reviews. These documents force us to think more clearly about issues because we have to get to a clear statement of the customer problem. They also enable us to tackle potentially controversial topics. As the group sits and reads, each individual gets time to process their feelings and come to a more objective point of view before the discussion starts. Documents can be very powerful.”

Chris, Senior Manager, Amazon Advertising