“PowerPoint sucks. But… my boss only wants presentations.”
This common cry echoes in boardrooms across the globe, but what if there was a different way? Enter Amazon’s approach: the narrative memo. Banning PowerPoint might seem radical, but the underlying philosophy changes the game. Let’s explore how Amazon’s shift from slides to stories redefines effective corporate communication.
The Amazon Exception
“If only I were working for Amazon, I would never have to deal with slides.” Yes, Amazon banned PowerPoint from meetings. But be careful what you wish for. When Bezos banned PowerPoint, we were so focused on the trees that we missed the forest. The surface-level message you got is: PowerPoint sucks. Ban it.
Here’s what you missed:
- OUT WITH THE OLD: Bezos didn’t just ban PowerPoint.
- IN WITH THE NEW: He introduced narrative memos.
“So, is it just about the format? Instead of projecting slides, should I project a memo?” you ask. You’re missing the magic word: “narrative.” It’s not that a memo is inherently better than a slide. The slide invites you to add “bullet points.” A narrative memo requires you to think in terms of a story.
The Power of A Narrative Memo
Let’s hear it from the source:
“Well structured, narrative text is what we’re after rather than just text. If someone builds a list of bullet points in Word, that would be just as bad as PowerPoint. The reason writing a 4-page memo is harder than ‘writing’ a 20-page PowerPoint is because the narrative structure of a good memo forces better thought and better understanding of what’s more important than what, and how things are related. PowerPoint-style presentations somehow give permission to gloss over ideas, flatten out any sense of relative importance, and ignore the interconnectedness of ideas.”
What does narrative even mean? We don’t need to refer to the hero’s journey. Think about something as simple as:
- In the past, things were like this.
- But then something happened.
- In reaction to that, we have to do things this way.
- So that the future looks like that.
The Difference Between Slides and Narrative Memos
Bezos banning PowerPoint and suggesting using narrative memos changes everything.
Slides are displayed and commented on in real-time. They are crutches for speeches nobody wants to hear. Memos are read in silence during the first 30 minutes of the meeting.
“Well, I often pre-share my PowerPoint. What’s the difference?”
When you pre-share your slides, do you then skip the presentation and go straight to questions?
“No, since not everyone has time to read the deck, I need to go through it again. Some people in the room already have questions, but I need to get everyone up to speed.”
Do you see where Bezos wins? The first 30 minutes of the meeting are spent reading the memo together. Everyone starts from the same level playing field, and they all get up to speed at the same time. The silence, the togetherness, the energy in the room add to the ritual.
How to create a high-quality narrative memo according to Jeff Bezos
A meeting where you don’t just talk starts looking awfully like a workshop to me. Reading a memo and getting up to speed before talking is a powerful facilitation technique.
But if this difference wasn’t enough, let’s hear what Bezos thinks about these memos
“Not surprisingly, the quality of these memos varies widely. Some have the clarity of angels singing. They are brilliant and thoughtful and set up the meeting for high-quality discussion. Sometimes they come in at the other end of the spectrum.
(…)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!”
Writing a good narrative memo is hard. It creates a hurdle for the meeting organizer to overcome.
Each 6-page memo needs to include the following sections.
- State of the Business
- Lessons learned
- Strategic priorities
Here’s an example of how it would look like.
Working Backwards: creating fake press releases for non existent products
Are you still angry at your boss for forcing you to use PowerPoint?
Let me introduce another Amazon approach to narratives. It’s called Working Backwards.
Working Backwards is first and foremost a philosophy.
“We try to work backwards from the customer, rather than starting with an idea for a product and trying to bolt customers onto it.” says former Amazonian Ian McAllister.
Together with this approach comes the “Working Backwards Press Release.”
Before working on a new product, you must write a press release to announce it to the world.
This format requires you to hone in on the problem you’re solving, what the current solution is, why it fails, and how the new solution is so much better.
Narrative memos are hard. Press releases are harder.
I’ve worked for more than a decade shoulder-to-shoulder with Public Relations professionals.
Over this decade, only once was my PR partner unavailable, and I had to sit in for them and write a press release for one of our shared clients.
“How hard can it be,” I said to myself.
Only to find myself stuck for hours trying to crack the right structure and narrative for this one-page document.
A press release is the way the world will learn about something new. It needs to be compelling. And also clear. And needs to show the benefit at a surface level in the title but in a deep way in the text.
Each part of the press release builds upon, amplifies, and expands on the previous part. It is coherent in all its parts.
A great press release leaves you with a sense of expectation but also a perfect understanding of what’s to come.
I ended up calling the client and postponing the release. I just couldn’t write an engaging one-pager without any external help.
Can you really ditch PowerPoint?
PowerPoint is a terrible shortcut. Narrative memos and before-the-fact press releases are much better formats. They require organizations to focus their resources. For instance, in the time an average employee will prepare 10 slide decks, one Amazonian would be expected to work on one single memo.
Introducing these formats would require management who believe more in the story than in the volume of output. That understands how a narrative structure can unlock creativity, understanding, and growth.
If your boss asks you to create too many PowerPoint now you know what to do, send them the link to this post.