Writing before meeting

If you’re an executive at Amazon and you want to pitch a new idea to your colleagues, you’ll have some writing—and they’ll have some reading—to do.

Here’s what often happens in your typical meeting. Someone has an idea, maybe one they haven’t taken all that much time to think through, and they share it with the group. Or they might bring a PowerPoint deck that includes bulleted facts to support their vision. Discussions, questions, objections, etc. ensue. But in the end, nobody feels ready to say yes to the idea. There are too many questions, too many unknowns, and not a clear enough picture of what the idea would actually look like in practice. And the only decision reached is to discuss the idea—again—at a future meeting.

Amazon avoids this version of new idea limbo with “narratives.”

Anyone with a new idea must first lay out their argument in a memo of no longer than six pages. It’s not just a description; they address the assertions, assumptions, benefits, risks, and suggested next steps. And the idea is not shared in advance—it’s shared at the beginning of the meeting. At the start of the meeting, everyone reads the memo and makes notes in the margins. When everyone is finished reading, they ask the writer questions for 30-45 minutes. And best of all, at the end of the meeting, a decision is reached—yes, no, or a next step like gathering missing information.

Here are the benefits to this approach:

1. It makes ideas stronger.

It’s harder to write a convincing argument than it is to float a half-formed idea in a meeting. That’s intentional. The narrative forces people to really think about their idea, to consider not just the potential benefits but also the risks and the reasons it might not work (because you know you’ll need to answer those questions). As Amazon’s Jeff Bezos describes it in this article:

“Full sentences are harder to write [than bullets in a PowerPoint presentation]… They have verbs. The paragraphs have topic sentences. There is no way to write a six-page, narratively structured memo and not have clear thinking.”

Most of us would not voluntarily listen to a presentation if the speaker told us, “I haven’t prepared exactly what I want to say today, so I’m just going to start talking and see where it goes.” So why should we allow it in a meeting? The narrative imposes discipline before discussion.

2. It respects colleagues’ time.
Too often, a group’s approach to getting things done is “Let’s have a meeting.” But time is a precious commodity. And group meetings—especially when they include meandering discussions about half-formed ideas that ultimately don’t lead to decisions—are often gigantic time-wasters. The narrative means that if you don’t feel ready to present your pitch in writing, if you’re not ready to defend it in front of the group, then you don’t call the meeting. You can use that time to prepare. And you’ve respected your colleagues’ time by letting them do their work in the meantime.

3. It leads to faster, better decisions.
How many meetings have you sat through that were all talk and no follow-up action? The point of discussing just about anything in a group meeting is to make a decision of some kind. Sometimes the decision is a no. But that’s still a decision, a much more definitive one than the standard, “Let’s continue this discussion next week (at which point many of us will simply repeat what we said this week).”

You don’t have to adopt Amazon’s narrative to make your meetings more productive. In fact, you could improve most meetings with just a few simple steps.

  • Remember that any meeting is taking time from all the participants. 5-10 people spending an hour together is actually 5-10 hours of time that could have been spent doing something else. If you’re going to have meetings, make your meetings count.
  • Don’t have standing meetings that happen whether or not there’s anything worth discussing. Have a meeting only when you need to have a meeting.
  • Are you meeting just to get a group update on what everyone has been doing? Why not have colleagues just write a paragraph or two (not an Amazon narrative-style argument, just a simple description) and share it ahead of time?
  • If you want to share an idea just to get feedback, share it with a few key people first. Get their thoughts, objections, and concerns. This is like doing a focus group. You’ll have a chance to refine your idea before you bring it to the meeting. In fact, you might be able to line those key people up as supporters before then.
  • Measure your meetings by the decisions made. If the only decision made is to have another meeting, that’s not a decision. Decisions are yes, no, or a specific step to gather whatever is preventing you from making the decision today.