The Power of Amazon's Written Narratives

For years now I've been obsessed with understanding unique product cultures and how they enable companies to build world class products. One particular product culture that has always fascinated me is Amazon and their unique writing culture. I love talking to Amazon employees about how the writing culture is interwoven into their product development process and the pros and cons of it. But I was even more excited when Colin Bryar and Bill Carr published their new book, Working Backwards, which provides a deep dive into how the writing culture originated, the problems it sought to solve, the benefits it introduced, and the competitive advantage it created for Amazon. I wanted to share what I learned from the book for those evaluating whether to bring a writing culture to their own product teams.

In the first ten years of it's life Amazon was dominated by a traditional PowerPoint driven meeting culture. But by 2004, Jeff Bezos had become increasingly frustrated with the lack of productivity he felt from the exec meetings he held with product teams. The exec team started to believe the format the meetings took was at the root of the issue, and in particular, the challenges that PowerPoint posed in developing and communicating ideas. What they came to realize is that PowerPoint, by design, is a fairly low information density communication medium. PowerPoint slide best practices encourage presenters to condense and limit the information on any given slide to avoid confusing or losing one's audience. This was often codified in slide best practices like the 6x6 rule, which encouraged you to have no more than 6 bullets per slide and no more than 6 words per bullet. The challenge with this is that it requires the presenter to fill back in the missed information verbally. But this ultimately leads to the quality of the presenter's presentation skills having a material impact on decision making instead of simply the merit of the ideas being communicated. For example, a dynamic presenter could lead a group to approve a dismal idea. Or a poorly organized presentation could confuse people and produce discussions that are rambling and unfocused. Or a boring presentation could cause people to lose interest and start checking their email, thereby missing the good idea lurking beneath the droning voice and uninspiring visuals. The need for a presenter also meant that the slide deck alone was insufficient to convey or serve as a record of the complete argument at hand. The linear progression of slides also made it difficult to easily refer from one idea to another, making it difficult for reviewers to properly interrogate inter-related ideas for merit.

In 2004, Bezos and team came across an essay by Edward Tufte, a Yale professor who is an authority on the visualization of information. The essay, entitled The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint: Pitching Out Corrupts Within, succinctly summarized the issue they were experiencing: "As analysis becomes more causal, multivariate, comparative, evidence based, and resolution-intense, the more damaging the bullet list becomes". Tufte goes on to recommend an alternative: "For serious presentations it will be useful to replace PowerPoint slides with paper handouts showing words, numbers, data graphics, images together. High-resolution handouts allow viewers to contextualize, compare, narrate, and recast evidence. In contrast, data-thin, forgetful displays tend to make audiences ignorant and passive, and also to diminish the credibility of the presenter." Tufte then prescribes exactly how to make this change: "Making this transition in large organizations requires a straightforward executive order: From now on your presentation software is Microsoft Word, not PowerPoint. Get used to it." And in June 2004, Bezos sent an email to the entire team communicating exactly that.

From that point forward, the written narrative became the predominant meeting deliverable at exec meetings at Amazon. They were referred to as six-pagers since they could be max 6 pages (on 8.5" x 11" paper, single-spaced, 11 point font) with optional appendices that weren't required reading for meeting attendees. Meetings would begin with a silent 20 minute reading period for all attendees to read and take notes on their copy of the printed out narrative. And then was followed immediately by questions, comments, and discussion amongst attendees.

Amazon came to realize numerous advantages from the transition to written narratives. They immediately appreciated the high information density of communicated ideas: written narratives had 7-9x the information density per page compared to PowerPoint, based on word count. People also generally read 3x faster than the typical presenter could talk. This allowed decision makers to consume far more information in a meeting, which resulted in better informed people making higher-quality decisions and delivering better, more detailed feedback on the presenting team's tactical and strategic plans. This ultimately led to a competitive advantage against companies continuing to leverage the more traditional low-bandwidth methods of communication.

Initially though there was a lot of resistance from teams having to transition to written narratives. They found it far harder to create written narratives compared to PowerPoint presentations. Bezos was convinced of the value, so he sent his team the following note:

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.

The process of writing a narrative significantly changed the nature of the work product teams focused on when preparing for an exec review. Previously you'd spend significant time on graphic design and rehearsing the presentation. But now your time was spent improving the quality of the narrative, which far more directly corresponded with the quality of your ideas. It's a daunting task to get all the relevant facts and all one's salient arguments into a coherent understandable document - and it should be.

The narrative reviews also added additional value. You simply cannot gloss over an important topic in a narrative presentation, especially when you know it's going to be dissected by an audience full of critical thinkers. Narratives over time then began to anticipate the likely objections, concerns, and alternate points of view that reviewers would likely deliver. It was also easier to learn from others by reading excellent narratives, which wasn't possible with PowerPoint presentations.

Narratives were used inside Amazon to describe, review, or propose everything from an investment, to a potential acquisition, a new feature, a monthly or quarterly business update, or an operating plan. But where they added the most value was when proposing new product ideas. These specific narratives, called PR/FAQs, start with a few paragraph press release describing the value of the product from the customer's perspective, followed by up to 5 pages of external FAQs, addressing questions that customers or press might ask, and internal FAQs, addressing questions the team will have on how you will build and create the service. The vast majority of PR/FAQs that are produced never actually get greenlit and this is by design. By spending significant time up front thinking through all the details of a product, and determining - without committing precious software development resources - which products not to build, Amazon's resources were preserved to build products that would yield the highest impact for customers and its business.
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