In a LinkedIn post from 2015, VP and Distinguished Engineer at Amazon, Brad Porter, called meetings at Amazon “magical.”
For most of us, that would be one of the last words we use for meetings.
Meetings as many of us know them involve a PowerPoint presentation that quickly moves us through a bullet point list of ideas and wraps up with a slide titled “In summary.”
And let’s be honest, who wouldn’t zone out a little?
“Imagine for a moment that you could go into a meeting and everyone in the meeting would have very deep context on the topic you’re going to discuss. . . Imagine if everyone understood the core tenets you operate by and internalized how you’re applying them to your decisions.
How great would it be not to be constantly interrupted by clarifying questions? . . . If executives deeply understood your organization from your perspective before asserting they know better how to do it? How great would it be to be able to review the core data going into a decision rather than have someone summarize it and assert that correlation is causality without revealing their work?”
The secret sauce? The Amazon six page memo process.
The process was initially revealed back in 2012 by Conor Neill, and has been written about various times over the years.
In this post, however, we’ll look at why writing out our ideas makes them better, and what all marketers can learn from this process.
In a letter to shareholders, Jeff Bezos himself described how Amazon takes the opposite approach.
They banned PowerPoint from Amazon meetings.
Instead, they opt to have teams present six-page memos. Everyone attending a meeting takes time to read and process the full six pages.
Attendees ask questions only after they’re done reading the memo, and ideas go from there.
The process of writing six pages, reading those pages — and then starting to work on an idea does seem cumbersome.
But, it actually creates a much more streamlined process for getting ideas from the incubator to the action stage.
Say you’ve got a great idea rattling around in your brain.
It’s probably only after you start putting that idea on paper that you realize the amount of work it’s going to take to bring it to fruition.
Journalist Fareed Zakaria once wrote:
“Thinking and writing are inextricably intertwined. When I begin to write, I realize that my ‘thoughts’ are usually a jumble of half-baked, incoherent impulses strung together with gaping logical holes between them.”
Thoughts become more like plans when you start writing (not copying — but writing).
This happens because the hippocampus, which is the center of emotion, memory, and the autonomic nervous system, becomes active as we write, throwing out useful information as we go.
Another part of the brain, associated with holding multiple pieces of information at once, also becomes active. This helps us tie all those ideas together as we set them to paper (or screen).
It’s obviously easier to create a PowerPoint than a drafted, edited, and revised six-page memo, but according to Bezos’ letter to shareholders, that’s exactly the point:
“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. . .
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.”
Writing out ideas makes it much easier to see flaws that might not have been obvious in a jumbled list of notes or even in a presentation.
And a memo like the one Amazon employees use also makes it much easier to give others a clear, big picture look at your proposal. This in turn obviously makes meetings much more productive.
Let’s face it, we all spend way too much time in meetings.
According to The Harvard Business Review, executives now spend around 23 hours a week in meetings, up from just 10 hours in the 1960s.
Business tools like PowerPoint presentations make it easier to quickly process information and move on.
But is that really improving our strategy? Probably not.
In an interview, Bezos revealed that the first thirty minutes of Amazon meetings are used to silently review the memos, so that everyone is prepared to fully focus on the idea being presented:
“Just like high school kids, 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 — and that’s what the first half hour of the meeting is for. And then everyone has actually read the memo, they’re not just pretending to have read the memo.”
There’s science to back up this approach.
Studies show that because of something called cognitive load. Cognitive load refers to our brain’s capacity to process new information. Asking meeting attendees to listen to a presentation while absorbing the information presented on a PowerPoint slide could be too much for our cognitive load.
A smarter strategy for getting the most out of your meetings? Silently reading, looking for answers to questions that arise from processing the text, and then presenting challenges and insights to the information after taking time to absorb.
Say you’ve struck on an idea that seems like solid gold.
Taking two weeks to write it out — not to mention more time to revise based on feedback from colleagues — may seem like a waste of precious time.
However, this approach is actually what helps Amazon roll out new ideas so quickly.
In fact, Amazon’s revolutionary Prime Now service, which guarantees one-hour delivery on certain products to Prime members, took just 111 days to go from an idea on paper to the testing phase.
And that could be because the writing process helps to map out a project much more thoroughly than multiple meetings featuring 20-page PowerPoints.
Nothing is perfect on the first try.
Get your ideas down on paper without worrying too much about cohesion, structure, or even grammar.
If you’re working on a team, include everyone’s insights and experiences.
What’s the common theme of these insights and experiences?
Imagine your narrative as a string, tying all the elements of your first draft together.
Studies show that beginning writers use the visual part of their brains while writing, but professional writers use their speech centers.
That’s because the best writers know that humans respond to stories.
The best marketing campaigns focus on storytelling, and applying those same storytelling techniques to the document that presents your idea will help others both understand your plan and find places where the “story” falls flat.
Most marketers understand the power of persuasive writing — in emails, social media campaigns, and web copy.
However, many of us overlook the power of the written word when it comes to developing our own ideas.
Make sure you’re getting the most mileage out of those brilliant plans, and get to writing!
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