One of the distinctive features of the Amazon management system is its use of the long-form to facilitate decision-making. Jeff Bezos has claimed that banning PowerPoint presentations—more specifically disallowing bullet points for sharing ideas—as Amazon’s “probably the smartest thing we ever did.”
Since June 2004, Bezos has forbidden bullet points and PowerPoint at a senior leadership level. Instead of presentations, teams are expected to iterate an approach to sharing information that involves writing memos of running copy, usually a “six-page, narratively-structured memo.” Meetings typically begin in silence as all participants sit and read the memo for up to half an hour before discussing the subject matter.
Ram Charan and Julia Yang’s The Amazon Management System (2019) reproduces the original email from Bezos explaining this dictum:
Well-structured, narrative text is what we’re after, rather than just text. If someone builds a list of bullet points in Word, that would be just as bad as PowerPoint.
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, 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.
Using memos may seem counterintuitive in an age when communication is increasingly visual. However, long-form has a way of forcing rigor to think through ideas properly, reconcile viewpoints pro and con, iron out logical inconsistencies, and consider second-order consequences.
Bezos’s approach is brilliant not just because sentences and paragraphs enable a certain clarity in thought and exchange of ideas. It also inhibits some of the usual shortcomings of brainstorming meetings, viz., interruptions, biases that initiate groupthink, and the tendency to reward rhetorical ability over substance. Forcing all meeting attendees to read the memo in real-time prevents them from pretending to have read it before a meeting and then bluffing their way through the meeting.
Idea for Impact: Think complex, speak simple, decide better.
Bullet points and “decks” are often the least effective way of sharing ideas. Having a narrative structure allows you to clarify your thinking and provide a logical, sequenced argument to support your ideas.