Amazon’s writing culture, explained

Two longtime Amazon exes just wrote a book about the company, including why they write memos instead of using PowerPoint.

Jeff Bezos writing his annual shareholder letter (Source: Giphy)

Making fun of PowerPoint presentations is a popular pastime in corporate America (to be fair, they really do suck).

Back in 2004, Jeff Bezos actually did something about it: In lieu of crafting a PowerPoint, Amazon employees had to write a narrative-driven, 6-page memo before executive meetings.

In their new book Working Backwards, longtime Amazon execs Bill Carr and Colin Bryar explain the company’s writing culture, including why memos are better than PowerPoint:

  • Decision-making requires narrative: While PowerPoint is good for conveying data, decisions require persuading stakeholders. Memos are better at achieving this goal.
  • Higher information density: People can read faster than people can talk. One author says a memo conveys 10x as much information as a PowerPoint presentation.
  • Ideas > charisma: A charismatic PowerPoint presenter can sell a bad idea, while a poor presenter may be unable to sell a good idea. In a memo, the idea wins.
  • Better analysis: PowerPoint’s hierarchical (and sequential) structure is not ideal to address complex issues. Narrative-driven memos can be multi-causal and provide a 360-degree view on a topic.
  • Shared understanding: Whether or not one agrees with the memo, a focused reading of it puts everyone on the same page to begin discussions.

It’s not just memos, either

The book’s title comes from Amazon’s product development philosophy: Instead of creating a product and then finding customers, Amazon asks, “What does the customer need?” and works backwards toward a product.

As part of the process, employees write a mock press release, which accomplishes a few things:

  • Forces big thinking: You don’t write press releases for incremental improvements.
  • Creates an FAQ: This document answers all potential customer questions, and also uncovers potential hurdles and opportunities.

If you want a PowerPoint of this article, email us and we definitely won’t get back to you.(Check out the book’s authors on the a16z podcast for much more.)

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