Writing Memos

Although I’ve never considered myself a writer, I set a goal in January to become better at “using my words”.

As I’ve struggled through a couple of blog posts, some longish docs at work, and even an online writing class, I’ve grown particularly interested in corporate cultures where long-form writing is integral to the way decisions are made and information is shared.

Amazon is one of the most legendary examples I’ve come across. Their use of internal memos is both prolific and puzzling. It’s an incredible system, but how many other companies could make the necessary changes to support it–without facing internal revolt?

Fortunately, for those not in such cultures, the act of memo writing can be of tremendous personal value. Even if no one else reads them, they clarify thinking, expose gaps in logic, and lay bare facts that can’t otherwise be hidden.

Killing Powerpoint

In 2004, Jeff Bezos killed off Powerpoint at Amazon.

Meetings had been centered around the common practice of presenting a deck, and talking through slides full of bullet points. Bezos found the whole practice deeply unsatisfying. As Brad Stone chronicles in The Everything Store, he decided to put an end to it.

Amazon employees had been using Microsoft’s PowerPoint and Excel spreadsheet software to present their ideas in meetings. Bezos believed that method concealed lazy thinking. “PowerPoint is a very imprecise communication mechanism,” says Jeff Holden, Bezos’s former D. E. Shaw colleague, who by that point had joined the S Team. “It is fantastically easy to hide between bullet points. You are never forced to express your thoughts completely.”

Bezos announced that employees could no longer use such corporate crutches and would have to write their presentations in prose, in what he called narratives. The S Team debated with him over the wisdom of scrapping PowerPoint but Bezos insisted. He wanted people thinking deeply and taking the time to express their thoughts cogently.

These narrative memos were to be read at the beginning of meetings by all attendees, with time reserved at the end for questions–essentially creating a corporate group study session.

The change was not easy and there were growing pains of switching from a presentation culture to a memo culture. There were initially no page limits, leading to unreasonably long papers. And many had probably not written anything of substantial length since college.

But over 15 years later, the practice is still in place.

In his 2017 Amazon shareholder letter, Bezos mentioned narrative memos as a practice that helps them continue to have high-standards. It still sounds very similar to what was launched and refined in 2004.

We don’t do PowerPoint (or any other slide-oriented) presentations at Amazon. Instead, we write narratively structured six-page memos. We silently read one at the beginning of each meeting in a kind of “study hall.

The Value of Memos

So what exactly is the value of sitting down and writing out prose?

Writing out prose is hard because it makes gaps in thinking obvious. Written reports require more precision and care than verbal presentations. They impose a level of discipline and raise the bar on the thinking required to create a cogent, and cohesive output–free of inconsistencies that become obvious when putting an entire report to paper. Missing data, unanswered questions, and unaccounted for complications are easy to hand-wave away during a presentation. In a memo, they ring-out like alarm bells.

Memos force well-structured thought. There is really no way to write a great one without clear, structured thinking.

And a great one can’t just be whipped up in an evening. Bezos said in the same shareholder letter that really exceptional ones might take over a week or more to complete.

To me this is the primary benefit of the memo: clearer, more disciplined thinking for the writer. Whether hyperbole or not, Andy Grove writes in High Output Management that “reports are more a medium of self-discipline than a way to communicate information. Writing the report is important; reading it is often not.”

Another benefit is the way that memos can quickly ramp up a group of people on very complex topics, with which they might be unfamiliar. Getting everyone in a meeting the necessary context, background, and data to make good decisions is typically impossible. The fact that Amazon has instituted the narrative memo practice for so long leads me to believe that it is incredibly effective.

How to Use Outside of Amazon

Outside of a company like Amazon, it is unlikely that you will get a group of busy people to silently read your six-page memo.

But I think that’s beyond the point. The process of clarifying your own thinking is a prerequisite for creating any other kind of presentation medium that matches your company’s communication culture. The memo can provide the raw ingredients for a deck, talk, or email.

And ultimately, the end-medium is actually irrelevant. It’s the tip of the iceberg, while deep-thinking forms the ice under the surface–anticipated questions, corner-cases, and data to support positions and hypotheses.

So keep writing even if others won’t read it. And if they will, then make sure you bring the A team memo1.

  1. A harsh Bezos burn from The Everything Store: [After reading a narrative.] “This document was clearly written by the B team. Can someone get me the A team document? I don’t want to waste my time with the B team document.”