USING THE BEZOS MEMO
Jeff Bezos has a nontraditional management style at Amazon, and this includes a unique twist on meeting structure, including an Memo-based approach to starting meetings. We will refer to such memo’s in this class as “The Bezos Memo"
What is the Bezos Memo?
Many years ago at Amazon, Bezos mandated a new way to hold meetings: Meetings start with each attendee sitting and silently reading a “six-page, narratively-structured memo” for about the first 30 minutes of the meeting. “And it’s probably the smartest thing we ever did.” Bezos said at the Bush Center’s Forum on Leadership in 2018.
″[The memo is] supposed to create the context for what will then be a good discussion,” Bezos said. Those participating are encouraged to take notes, and after the reading period is over, they discuss the memo. Bezos says the reason for the group reading is that “executives will bluff their way through the meeting as if they’ve read the memo because we’re busy and so you’ve got to actually carve out the time for the memo to get read.”
Before the memo-based meetings were instituted, “we were doing the more traditional thing,” Bezos said. “A junior executive comes in, they put a huge amount of effort into developing a PowerPoint presentation, they put the third slide up, and the most senior executive in the room has already interrupted them, thrown them off their game, asking questions about what is going to be presented in slide six, if they would just stay quiet for a moment...”He explained that PowerPoint slides often have “obscure information.” Bezos prefers memos, he says, because each have “verbs and sentences and topic sentences and complete paragraphs.” In his 2017 letter to shareholders, Bezos wrote the following,
Excerpt from Amazon Letter to Shareholders:
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.” Not surprisingly, the quality of these memos varies widely. Some have the clarity of angels singing. They are brilliant and thoughtful and set up the meeting for high-quality discussion. Sometimes they come in at the other end of the spectrum.
In the handstand example, it’s pretty straightforward to recognize high standards. It wouldn’t be difficult to lay out in detail the requirements of a well-executed handstand, and then you’re either doing it or you’re not. The writing example is very different. The difference between a great memo and an average one is much squishier. It would be extremely hard to write down the detailed requirements that make up a great memo. Nevertheless, I find that much of the time, readers react to great memos very similarly. They know it when they see it. The standard is there, and it is real, even if it’s not easily describable.
Here’s what we’ve figured out. 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: they mistakenly believe a high-standards, six-page memo can be written in one or two days or even a few hours, when really it might take a week or more! They’re trying to perfect a handstand in just two weeks, and we’re not coaching them right. The great memos are written and re-written, 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. They simply can’t be done in a day or two. 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.
Notice, Bezos emphasizes:
• “The great memos are written and re-written, 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,”
• “They simply can’t be done in a day or two.”
• ″[It] is harder for the author, but it forces the author to clarify their own thinking,” he said at the Forum on Leadership. “It totally revolutionizes the way we do meetings at Amazon.”
Bezos is not the only CEO to believe in “silent meetings.” Twitter and Square CEO Jack Dorsey uses a similar method, which includes holding meetings that start with 10 minutes of silent reading from a Google Doc. "Most of my meetings are now Google doc-based, starting with 10 minutes of reading and commenting directly in the doc” Dorsey tweeted in 2018. "This practice makes time for everyone to get on same page, allows us to work from many locations, and gets to truth/critical thinking faster.”
• In class, we often use a version of this which requires you to write a memo prior to class. Some memos will have more structure, while others will be open-ended. Length will also vary. These details will be specified on canvas depending on which entrepreneurial action we are discussing.
How to become a better writer
As always, in our entrepreneurship classes and in all things that an entrepreneur does (press releases, sales, marketing, storytelling in the pitch, etc.) style, precision, and clarity of writing are extremely important. Do not overly use “jargon” or try to complicate your writing. Reduce unnecessary words whenever possible, cite sources when providing data, and be precise in your language/writing. Should you be less than fully confident in your writing, I recommend two resources that focus on how to become a better writer:
Writing Tips from "Write Like an Amazonian" (published 2018).