Leadership

Why Jeff Bezos makes Amazon execs read 6-page memos at the start of each meeting

Amazon.com founder and CEO Jeff Bezos.
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Amazon.com founder and CEO Jeff Bezos.

PowerPoint is one of the most popular tools for presenting information. But at Amazon, the software program takes a back seat to written memos.

In a letter to shareholders, founder and CEO Jeff Bezos reveals that company execs "don't do PowerPoint" or any other slide-oriented presentations. Instead, "Amazonians" create six-page narrative memos that are read at the beginning of each meeting—kind of like a "study hall" session, he says.

Though Bezos admits that silently reading memos together is the "weirdest meeting culture," he has to carve out the time because his execs are busy.

"If we don't, the executives, like high school kids, will try to bluff their way through a meeting," says the CEO at a recent Forum on Leadership. "[The memo is] supposed to create the context for what will then be a good discussion."

Amazon has long prioritized memos over PowerPoint and in a 2004 email to his team, Bezos broke down his thought process:

"The reason writing a 'good' four 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."

In his latest shareholder letter, Bezos adds that reading these memos taught him the importance of scope. While some memos are well thought-out and carefully crafted, others are poorly written and fall on the other end of the spectrum, he writes.

Although it's hard to pinpoint what differentiates a great memo from an average one, says Bezos, employees know a great memo when they read one.

"The standard is there, and it is real, even if it's not easily describable," he writes.

The billionaire notes that there's a lesson to be learned from this: "Often, when a memo isn't great, it's not the writer's inability to recognize the high standard but instead a wrong expectation on scope," he says.

These employees falsely believe a "high standard," six-page memo can be written in just a few days or even hours. In actuality, the process can take weeks.

"The great memos are written and rewritten, shared with colleagues who are asked to improve the work, set aside for a couple of days, and then edited again with a fresh mind," writes Bezos.

He continues, "The key point here is that you can improve results through the simple act of teaching scope – that a great memo probably should take a week or more."

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