What We Can Learn From Amazon’s Famous 6-Page Memo

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At Amazon, every meeting that involves making a business decision is based on a 6-page document.

The company follows a No-Powerpoint-Culture which comes with several benefits for employees, managers, and stakeholders:

  • It drives better discussions because all members of the meeting receive a copy of the document, can review the facts at any time, and pose relevant questions without interrupting the flow of a presentation.
  • People usually spend lots of time designing fancy presentations. If you create a document with plain text, you need to focus on substance instead of animations, colors, or graphics.

Here’s an excerpt of how Jeff Bezos introduced this unique approach to his employees.

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Instead of PowerPoint presentations, Amazonians need to write memos that include the key components of their idea and validate why their statements are relevant.

Through his email, Bezos expressed how much emphasis he puts on the clarity of thought instead of redundant information or design.

This unique writing culture is not only simple but also effective and is meant to drive discussion, clarity, and feedback among all employees.

According to Bezos, a good memo forces writers and readers to think instead of just skimming the surface through a few PowerPoint slides.

Additionally, listening is a passive experience, reading, however, is an active task.

For the first 30–40 minutes of a meeting, the attendees sit in silence and read the document before starting a discussion. This might feel weird for new employees, but it’s an effective way to update everyone with relevant information and data.

“We have study hall at the beginning of our meetings.”
— Jeff Bezos

After 30–40 minutes, either the 6-page document is being reviewed, or it’s more of a free-flow discussion.

According to one former Amazon employee, this approach is powerful because everyone in the meeting is well-versed in the critical data and understands the core tenets the company operates by.

However, these 6-page documents also need to follow specific rules to be as clear, concise, and practical as possible.

And the truth is that writing a good 6-page evidence-based narrative is harder than creating a well-designed presentation. That’s because it can be hard to summarize complex business relations and decisions in as little as 6 pages.

“When you have to write your ideas out in complete sentences, complete paragraphs it forces a deeper clarity.”
— Jeff Bezos

To write such a document, employees first need to understand their own space and gather data, but they also need to communicate their ideas clearly.

And while the purpose of the following rules is to make Amazons internal communication more effective, they can also help you become a better writer.

Here’s how you can use Amazons Writing Style Tips to improve your craft.

Respect the Time of Your Reader

One of the most crucial rules of Amazon’s writing guide any writer should take to heart is making sentences clear and concise.

According to Amazon, this means:

  • avoiding long sentences (max. 30 words)
  • avoiding clutter words and phrases
  • using subject-verb-object sentences

As writers, we’re often tempted to amplify our writing with redundant words and phrases.

But your readers are busy.

As a great writer, it’s your job to communicate your ideas precisely and concisely without wasting your reader's time.

Here are a few simple changes you can make:

  • Due to the fact → Because
  • During the course of → During
  • Came in contact with → Met
  • During the time that → While
  • Avoid words like: basically, essentially, just, simply, pretty, or that— these barely add value to a text and can be avoided in most cases.
  • We’re in the process of learning → We’re learning
  • Use the short word instead of the long one if they mean the same thing, e.g., many instead of numerous, or enough instead of sufficient.

You get the point — there’s a lot we can do to make our readers' lives easier by choosing simple words and shortening our texts.

Replace Adjectives With Data and Eliminate Weasel Words

Spot the difference between: Most people are dehydrated. and 75% of Americans are chronically dehydrated.

The former might be an assumption. What does most mean? 50%? 99%? It can mean anything and leaves lots of room for interpretation.

In some cases, this might be okay, but if you want to be persuasive and make a point, words like most are too vague.

Amazon writers need to be concrete. They need to provide data instead of adjectives and eliminate weasel words like significantly better.

Instead of saying, Sales increased significantly in Q4, due to our use of holiday promotions. — they say — Unit sales increased 40% in Q4 2011, compared to Q4 2010, because of holiday promotions.

Other examples of weasel expressions Amazon writers need to eliminate are:

  • would help the solution
  • might bring clarity
  • should result in benefits
  • nearly all customers
  • significantly better

If you want to be a convincing and trustworthy writer, back your arguments up with factual data, your own experience, or an explanation for why you’re saying what you’re saying.

Avoid Industry Jargon and Acronyms

To build an audience, you need to ensure people understand what you mean.

If newcomers or non-experts feel dumb and confused after reading your articles, they’ll likely avoid your next piece.

Most of the time, people won’t remember what you taught them, but they’ll remember how they felt after reading your work.

If you use technical terms, acronyms, or abbreviations that are not common knowledge outside of your industry, make sure to explain what you’re talking about.

It’s better to be on the safe side and ensure newcomers can follow your ideas instead of trying to sound smart through big words.

Take Care of the Small Stuff

If you don’t check your grammar and spelling before sharing your writing with your colleagues (or the world), people might assume you’re also sloppy with important facts and figures.

Even if you’re not a native or not good with grammar, you can use dozens of tools to clean up your mistakes.

Additionally, you can always ask peers and colleagues to polish your writing and have a look before you hit publish.

Proper grammar and spelling are the very least your readers can expect.

“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.“
— Jeff Bezos

It’s always Day 1

Bezos is well known for using certain proverbs repetitively to get his company, stakeholders, and the whole Amazon community aligned with his vision.

One of these proverbs, which he repeats in every shareholder letter, is it’s still Day 1.

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Amazon’s 2015 Shareholder Letter

As a writer, you should adopt this mindset and view each day as your first day.

There’s always room for improvement and the moment you stop moving forward is usually the time you start moving backward — in writing, business, and life.

By embracing each day as Day 1, you’ll always keep improving yourself and your craft, which will undoubtedly be rewarded in the long run.

Final Thoughts

As with any advice, the exception proves the rule.

Even though there’s a lot we can learn from Amazon’s writing rules, there are types of writing to which these rules don’t apply.

In the end, it’s up to you as a creative brain to determine which rules can make your writing better and which can’t.

That being said, Amazon’s writing rules form a great basic guideline for anyone who wants to write educational content for a large audience.

If you want to get a better understanding of how Jeff Bezos himself follows the rules of Amazonian writing, you can read all shareholder letters he ever sent here.

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