When you look for innovators in the modern business world, you look to Amazon. The company has made innovation its goal in everything that it does. They have to be because they need to stay ahead of customer demands.
As Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos puts it: “Our customers are loyal to us right up until the second somebody offers them a better service.”
“And I love that. It’s super-motivating for us,” he adds.
A lot of Amazon’s innovations focus on delivering better and new services to customers. You need only look at the constant evolution of its Prime service to see that Amazon constantly looks for new ways to build their customer base and keep their existing customers happy.
It pays off too. Some estimates claim that the near-50 million people in the US who have Prime contribute $2,500 each per year to Amazon’s coffers.
But such rapid customer-centric innovation requires an internal culture that’s equally innovative. Amazon’s leaders have to make decisions fast if they’re going to stay ahead of the game.
That’s where their focus on memo culture comes in.
Steve Jobs said “I hate the way that people use slide presentations instead of thinking” and advocated for the use of flip-charts and whiteboards. Jeff Bezos has taken it a step further with memo culture.
From presentations to memos
In his 2018 letter to Amazon’s shareholders1, Jeff Bezos revealed a fact that may have shocked a lot of readers.
Amazon bans PowerPoint presentations from meetings.
PowerPoint and similar slideshow software packages have been a fixture of meetings for years. They offer speakers the chance to structure their ideas so they can present them.
But Bezos identifies a problem with the presentation format. It doesn’t allow for the development of a narrative structure. Instead, you just have somebody reeling off facts in front of people. Participants grow increasingly disinterested as the presentation rolls on.
Amazon does things differently. At the start of each meeting, each participant reads a narratively-structured six-page memo. This memo doesn’t carry the writer’s name. In many cases, its creation is a team effort.
The idea is to create a study hall environment at the beginning of the meeting. Everyone sits in silence to read and absorb the ideas tucked away in the memo’s narrative. Then, they start the meeting in earnest by jumping straight into the discussion.
That’s the key difference that memo culture offers. Meetings no longer involve one person standing in front of a group and presenting a bunch of dry facts. Instead, participants extract context and meaning from the memo, as well as key data.
The benefits of the memo culture
We’ve employed the narrative memo ourselves at various points and we’ve seen the benefits firsthand. The following are just a few of the advantages of choosing memos over presentations.
Benefit #1 — Reducing cognitive load
Think back to the last time you sat through a presentation. The presenter likely bombarded you with so much information that you began to lose track.
The presentation would have included stats and charts on every slide. You’d also have to keep up with the presenter’s explanations of what all of that stuff means. You spend the entire time trying to deduce the context of the data presented to you. Then, you spend even more time trying to figure out the context during roundtable discussions.
Narrative-driven memos take a lot longer to build than presentations. Jeff Bezos recommends a minimum of one week and says that a great memo usually goes through several redrafts. However, you get something that introduces the context of the meeting right at the start. That reduces the cognitive load on participants. They get the key information in an easy-to-digest manner, which leads to more useful discussions.
Benefit #2 — You get a better structure
Building context into a memo also means you’re building a better structure. The memo creator has to provide the context and illustrate which decisions the group needs to make. They also have to provide recommendations based on the information they’ve provided.
That’s not what happens with most presentations. Often, a slideshow just introduces a bunch of talking points. That means participants have to wade through hours of aimless discussions before getting to the key decisions.
Benefit #3 — Faster meetings
With the context and recommendations already laid out, the participants can focus immediately on the key issues.
A great memo draws attention to these issues and explains why they need consideration.
That speeds up the process enormously. However, there’s another speed advantage to the memo culture.
The memo writer may come up with workable solutions that they suggest as part of the memo. In some cases, the meeting involves little more than signing off on the suggestions in the memo. If everyone agrees with its narrative, you don’t waste hours talking.
Benefit #4 — Self-documenting
Defining the purpose and creating the minutes for a meeting both waste a lot of time.
Again, the memo goes a long way towards saving that time. A great memo details the meeting’s purpose and introduces the intended outcomes. You may expand on them a little, but you have most of the information documented via the memo.
This improves efficiency, which means you have more time to focus on implementing the suggested solution.
Why should you make the switch?
Those are some of the benefits that we’ve seen through our use of the narrative memo.
However, you may want to dig a little deeper into the psychology behind memo culture. What is it that makes memos so much more effective than presentations?
The simple fact is that the narrative structure works better for information delivery. Here are the reasons why.
Reason #1 — Our brains love narratives
For as long as humans have existed, we’ve used stories to share information. You can go all the way back to the early humans to see this. Once we managed to control fire, we created places for people to convene. They’d tell stories that contained warnings and instructions on how to survive.
Fast forward to the modern day and think about the stories that people tell you about their lives. Tucked away in each is a lesson that you can learn. The power of another person’s experiences can inform and inspire you.
More importantly, you remember great stories. Your favourite films and books inspire you and stick with you forever.
We’re wired for storytelling.
Transplant that line of thinking into the modern meeting setting. A great narrative memo ensures that meeting participants remember the key information. It essentially tells a story by creating a context and delivering conclusions.
From an anthropological perspective, that’s much more effective than a dry telling of the key stats.
Reason #2 — Bullet points don’t work
Bezos’s switch to narrative memos means he’s done away with bullet points. He’s not the only one. People like Richard Branson and Elon Musk don’t use bullet points either.
There’s a simple reason for that — bullet points can’t inspire people.
They’re just a way to quickly and concisely round up some key points.
That sounds great until you consider how your brain prefers to take information in. You can’t build a narrative into a set of bullet points. You can’t conjure up the sort of imagery that the human brain prefers.
That means bullet points can’t convey information as effectively as a narrative.
Reason #3 — You can’t persuade without narrative
Examine some of the greatest speakers in the world and you can see the power of narrative. People like Martin Luther King Jr. didn’t just deliver dry information to people. They built stories around their key points.
People are emotional creatures. Neuroscientists tell us that appealing to somebody on the emotional level is the fastest way to persuade them.
You can’t do that with data based presentations. That’s not to say that data isn’t important. A great narrative needs logic to back it up.
However, without an emotional narrative, you can’t expect people to absorb information well.
The future is narrative memo culture
Narrative structure is the way forward in the modern meeting environment.
Amazon’s shift away from presentation culture reflects this. The company recognises that dry presentations don’t help people to absorb information. It knows that a presentation provides no context for participants.
In the end, meeting participants have to build that context for themselves which slows down meetings and effective decision making.
Narrative memos provide context to the information that they present. They include proposals and draw conclusions that act as a launching pad for faster decision making.
Consider making the switch yourself. After all, it’s working for one of the world’s most successful companies.