Internal comms and efficiency tips from Amazon

Keep meetings small, prioritize storytelling over data, and capture your audience right off the bat.

Amazon comms tips

Amazon may owe at least part of its success to efficient internal communication.

Corporate communication teams can glean plenty of lessons from the e-commerce giant—especially in terms of meetings.

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos explained his simple rules for corporate communication in a letter to shareholders and an interview at the George W. Bush Presidential Center’s Forum on Leadership. Here are the key takeaways:

1. The two-pizza rule. Large groups tend to devolve into long, rambling discussions that end up wasting everyone’s time. Bezos keeps meetings manageable by limiting the number of attendees to no more than can be fed by two pizzas.

2. The six-page memo. Amazon has banned PowerPoints and other slide presentations. Instead, its people create a six-page memo—full narratives—not just bullet points.

The narrative memos work well because our brains process good storytelling much better than hard data, Bezos says. The memos give authors the chance to fully communicate their ideas, which helps meeting participants more thoroughly understand concepts.

Of course, memo quality varies greatly. “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. They simply can’t be done in a day or two,” Bezos writes in a letter to shareholders.

Producing memos is a team effort. Ideally, each team is led by someone with keen writing skills, but it’s not a requirement. In Bezos’ view, team leaders don’t have to be top-notch wordsmiths.

“The football coach doesn’t need to be able to throw, and a film director doesn’t need to be able to act,” he states. “But they both do need to recognize high standards for those things and teach realistic expectations on scope.”

3. Silence at the start. Meetings start with everyone reading the memo in silence. Bezos compares the atmosphere to a study hall.

This heads off the annoyance (and productivity hindrance) caused by busy executives who fail to read materials before meetings and try bluff their way through.

“This is the weirdest meeting culture you will ever encounter,” Bezos says. “New executives have a little culture shock.”

However, the in-meeting memo-reading step ensures that attendees are informed and prepared. Amazon executives have no excuse for not being abreast of the topic or issue.

“I’ve used this method in my own meetings, and I can vouch for its effectiveness,” Justin Bariso writes for Inc. “As the meeting moderator, you can be sure that everyone is starting off with a solid foundation and that they’re all on the same page.”

The method gives people time to gain a full understanding that leads to deeper discoveries.

4. Writing prompts thinking; reading prompts understanding.

PowerPoints may be easy to create, but people tend to process information better through reading rather than viewing a presentation. “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,” Emily Alford writes in ClickZ.

Alford offers these tips on writing meeting memos and most other business documents:

  • Don’t fear your first draft. Nothing is perfect on the first try. Get your ideas down on paper without worrying too much about cohesion, structure or grammar.
  • Find the narrative. Determine the insights and experiences and their common theme. Imagine your narrative as a string, tying all the elements of your first draft together.
  • Tell a story. 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. “Most marketers understand the power of persuasive writing—in emails, social media campaigns and web copy,” she states. “However, many of us overlook the power of the written word when it comes to developing our own ideas.”

Snackable content is the key for Amazon’s employee communications, says Kristin Graham, head of employee communications for Amazon Web Services. Your message has seven seconds to capture employees’ attention, Graham says. They want to instantly know whether the message is relevant to them. If it’s not, they won’t pay attention.

“We must continue to challenge ourselves to be snackable—bite-sized pieces,” Graham says.

A version of this post first appeared on the blog.

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