Jeff Bezos Banned PowerPoint in Meetings. His Replacement Is Brilliant:
Narrative memos have replaced PowerPoint presentations at Amazon
In his 2018 annual letter, Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos repeated his rule that PowerPoint is banned in executive meetings. What Bezos replaced it with provides even more valuable insight for entrepreneurs and leaders.
In his letter, and in a recent discussion at the Forum on Leadership at the Bush Center, Bezos revealed that "narrative structure" is more effective than PowerPoint. According to Bezos, new executives are in for a culture shock in their first Amazon meetings. Instead of reading bullet points on a PowerPoint slide, everyone sits silently for about 30 minutes to read a "six-page memo that’s narratively structured with real sentences, topic sentences, verbs, and nouns."
After everyone’s done reading, they discuss the topic. "It’s so much better than the typical PowerPoint presentation for so many reasons," Bezos added.
As a student of narrative storytelling in business for the past 20 years, I can tell you exactly why it’s so much better.
1. Our brains are hardwired for narrative.
Narrative storytelling might not have been as critical for our survival as a species as food, but it comes close.
Anthropologists say when humans gained control of fire, it marked a major milestone in human development. Our ancestors were able to cook food, which was a big plus. But it also had a second benefit. People sat around campfires swapping stories. Stories served as instruction, warning, and inspiration.
Recently, I’ve talked to prominent neuroscientists whose experiments confirm what we’ve known for centuries: The human brain is wired for story. We process our world in narrative, we talk in narrative and–most important for leadership–people recall and retain information more effectively when it’s presented in the form of a story, not bullet points.
2. Stories are persuasive.
Aristotle is the father of persuasion. More than 2,000 years ago he revealed the three elements that all persuasive arguments must have to be effective. He called these elements "appeals." They are: ethos, logos, and pathos. Ethos is character and credibility. Logos is logic–an argument must appeal to reason. But ethos and logos are irrelevant in the absence of pathos–emotion.
Emotion is not a bad thing. The greatest movements in history were triggered by speakers who were gifted at making rational and emotional appeals: Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr.; and John F. Kennedy, who blended science and emotion to inspire America’s moon program.
Neuroscientists have found emotion is the fastest path to the brain. In other words, if you want your ideas to spread, story is the single best vehicle we have to transfer that idea to another person.
"I’m actually a big fan of anecdotes in business," Bezos said at the leadership forum as he explained why he reads customer emails and forwards them to the appropriate executive. Often, he says, the customer anecdotes are more insightful than data.
Amazon uses "a ton of metrics" to measure success, explained Bezos. "I’ve noticed when the anecdotes and the metrics disagree, the anecdotes are usually right," he noted. "That’s why it’s so important to check that data with your intuition and instincts, and you need to teach that to executives and junior executives."
Bezos clearly understands that logic (data) must be married with pathos (narrative) to be successful.
3. Bullet points are the least effective way of sharing ideas.
I wrote an article last year titled "Google’s CEO Doesn’t Use Bullet Points and Neither Should You." He still doesn’t. Neither do Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, Richard Branson, or most of the world’s most inspiring speakers.
Bullets don’t inspire. Stories do.
Simply put, the brain is not built to retain information that’s structured as bullet points on a slide. It’s well-known among neuroscientists that we recall things much better when when we see pictures of the object or topic than when we read text on a slide.
Visuals are much, much more powerful than text alone. That’s why, if you choose to use slides, use more pictures than words–and don’t use bullet points. Ever.
During his discussion at the forum, Bezos said he could have spent the entire event talking about narrative. That means he really studies this topic and is passionate about it.
At Amazon, speed matters
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Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos is famous for giving unconventional, controversial, and yet somehow extremely practical advice. He’s particularly obsessed with constraints on time and resources as they relate to decision-making.
At Amazon, where I previously worked at for more than nine years, a “bias for action” is listed as one of the e-commerce giant’s 14 principles of leadership.
The company defines this principle on its website: ” Speed matters in business. Many decisions and actions are reversible and do not need extensive study. We value calculated risk-taking.”
In his 2016 annual letter to shareholders, Bezos expanded on this idea by elaborating on the operational differences between “Day 1 companies” (his name for companies that are always operating with a beginner’s mindset, which is his preference) and “Day 2 companies” (companies that think they’ve already figured everything out).
“I work in an Amazon building named Day 1, and when I moved buildings, I took the name with me,” he wrote. “Day 2 is stasis. Followed by irrelevance. Followed by excruciating, painful decline. Followed by death. And that is why it is always Day 1 [at Amazon].”
This kind of thinking is key to Bezos’ success — and it’s what makes Amazon so unstoppable.
Day 2 companies make high-quality decisions, but they make high-quality decisions slowly. To keep the energy and dynamism of Day 1 (and stave off Day 2), Bezos makes high-quality, high-velocity decisions.
Here are the billionaire’s rules for making high-quality, high-velocity decisions:
- Never use a one-size-fits-all decision-making process. Many decisions are reversible, two-way doors. Those decisions can use a light-weight process.
- Most decisions should probably be made with somewhere around 70% of the information you wish you had. If you wait for 90%, in most cases, you’re probably being slow. If you’re good at course correcting, being wrong may be less costly than you think, whereas being slow is going to be expensive.
- Using the phrase “disagree and commit” will save you a lot of time. If you have conviction on a particular direction even though there’s no consensus, it’s helpful to say, “Look, I know we disagree on this, but will you gamble with me on it? Disagree and commit?” By the time you’re at this point, no one can know the answer for sure, and you’ll probably get a quick yes.
- Recognize true misalignment issues early and escalate them immediately. Teams sometimes have different objectives and fundamentally different views. They simply aren’t aligned — and no amount of discussion, no number of meetings will resolve that deep misalignment. Without escalation, the default dispute resolution mechanism for this scenario is exhaustion. Whoever has more stamina carries the decision.