Bezos’s Insistence on Full Narrative Prose

A follow up to my post about Jeff Bezos requiring his executive team to write full narrative memos (instead of PowerPoint presentations) when presenting proposals or initiatives. Bezos said this in explaining the approach:

 “Full sentences are harder to write,” he says. “They have verbs. The paragraphs have topic sentences. There is no way to write a six-page, narratively structured memo and not have clear thinking.”

As I wrote in my essay “Behind the Book,” the hard part about writing is not which words to use; rather, it’s in what order paragraphs should appear. The order of paragraphs holds the logic of the points being argued. And so most of “editing” involves re-ordering paragraphs and fleshing out transitions to and from paragraphs, rather than tweaking sentences.

You could argue the order of the bullet point slides in a PowerPoint deck forces a presenter to similarly consider logic and flow, but since you can orally compensate for rough spots, the standard for crisp thinking while building a PowerPoint deck is lower. Hence, Bezos insists on full narrative written prose–or at least that’s my guess as to why.

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One of my favorite Joan Didion quotes is “I don’t know what I think until I try to write it down.” Writing is thinking. A lot of busy people say they wish they had more time to “think” — to be proactively thoughtful rather than reactive. But “thought time” is a hard thing to actually schedule, let alone measure. Writing, on the other hand, is something you can schedule to do and then evaluate and measure the output (e.g. 700 words a day or a blog post a week). When someone tells me they don’t do much writing anymore, I sometimes wonder, When do you think deep-ish thoughts? And how do you ever know how coherent your thoughts actually are?

7 Responses to Bezos’s Insistence on Full Narrative Prose

  1. Ed says:

    Ben,

    Thank you for your post. This topic reminds me of Edward Tufte’s work.

    I have not read his work on power point, but his presentation on how to make better presentations is very helpful, and in the same line of thinking as Bezo’s.

    link to edwardtufte.com

    link to edwardtufte.com

  2. Jenny Bhatt says:

    Ben – I agree that writing is a way to think things through in a critical manner. Having recently started a blog for that very reason, I have been considering the various approaches and forms of writing for myself.

    That said, of course, the best writing goes beyond helping the writer’s thinking to enabling the readers / audience with a better level of engagement with the subject matter and to adding value by creating or improving the conversation around it. Powerpoint cannot do these things as well as oral and/or written narratives can.

    As a side-note: I kept thinking about the Amazon memo approach this weekend. Wouldn’t it be great, at some point, when the “statute of limitations” (for lack of a better term) expires and they could put out a “Best of Amazon Executive Memos” some day? I’d read it. :) I wondered if there wouldn’t be interest in a sampling of corporate communication documents (memos, emails, press releases, power points) across iconic firms over the decades – related to the most historical events through their timelines. Maybe something like that is out there. If not, maybe there’s your next book……

  3. Totally agree that writing is thinking. I’m exploring a career shift at the moment and writing is helping me think deeply about what it is I value and how I should go about finding my next phase.

  4. Mark Brophy says:

    It amazes me that angel investors and venture capitalists invest millions of dollars based on PowerPoint presentations. If you can’t write prose, you can’t think, and nobody should invest in your company.

  5. boys bedding says:

    as usual …great read and great article! thank you!

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