Gathering your thoughts, working them out on a page, and sharing that page with others is the spur for high level, creative problem-solving and the best (most productive) conversations. Instead of “winging it” by making up what you think, want and propose as you go along, the discipline of writing your thinking down first makes a remarkable difference.
It’s more than laziness that gets in the way of our doing so, although laziness and the smug belief that our wits will be enough is certainly a part of it. There is, after all, a long tradition of not thinking too much “while going with what we believe and feel” in American culture. The great historian Richard Hofstadter wrote AntiIntellectualism in America in 1964, and others like Susan Jacoby in The Age of American Unreason (2008) have picked up the thread more recently. Anyone viewing the political maelstrom today can see a ton of beliefs and emotions for every ounce of careful thinking.
So our reluctance to think through the issues beforehand is nothing new. And our suspicion of “intellectuals” who actually do helps us to confirm our general unwillingness to read about, consider, write down our thoughts, learn how to dissent from others’ thinking, and really converse with one another. There are several contributors to this reluctance, and I guess I’m working my way back through the list, having already discussed the emotional bars to political conversation (or how “The Danger of Absolute Thinking is Absolutely Clear”) and the generative quality of dissent (about Charlan Nemeth’s book In Defense of Troublemakers) on this page.
So what does writing down our thoughts before sharing them with others have to do with living and working? As it turns out, quite a lot.
As a group, Americans clearly don’t believe that the act of thinking (for itself) is as great as all those intellectuals keep telling them it is. As a people, our reaction is kind of: show me what’s so good about it and then I might try thinking-about-it-more if I’m convinced that it might actually be useful.
Among other things, this skepticism was the subject of another recent post about Robert Kaplan and his Earning the Rockies. Kaplan notes that Americans “washed” all the philosophizing that had trailed them from Europe in their vast frontier, reducing that thinking and ideology into something that they could actually use to build a new way of life. “Show me how all of these ideas can help me to solve the problems I face everyday, and then, maybe I’ll take them seriously.” It’s no mistake that Missouri, the gateway to the American frontier, is also called the Show-Me State.
What Americans found on the frontier (and translated into a national way of life) was that ideas are useful when they help us to improve our hard-working lives and, in particular, to make more money while we’re at it. I suspect that this makes us unique as a country and a people. Unlike the intellectual elites of Europe who argue ideas, our favorite “intellectuals” are of the practical variety. They show us how to live and work better (entrepreneurs like Steve Jobs and Elon Musk) and to make more money while doing so (Warren Buffett and Vanguard’s Jack Bogle).
Which is where Jeff Bezos comes in.
In a week that saw him fighting with the National Enquirer about nude pictures that he exchanged with his mistress—more on that later—we also know Bezos as the founder of Amazon, which has become one of the largest companies in the world and made him the world’s richest man in only 20 years. Like Jobs, Musk, Buffett and Bogle, there has been a great deal of intellectual rigor, with highly practical outcomes, behind Bezos’ and Amazon’s remarkable success.
While I’ve been talking for months about Amazon’s anti-competitive and job-killing behaviors, it also seems fitting to recognize one of the insights that Bezos has used to drive Amazon’s dominance–and how you might profit from it too. All that is necessary is overcoming the laziness of easy answers and some of our native suspicions about thinking too much.
1. On Writing Your Thinking Down Before You Share It
To build one of the largest companies in the world in two decades took several really good ideas, and even more importantly, several really good ways to turn those ideas into solutions for the legion of problems that every new company faces. Many of those solution-generating approaches were applied by Bezos, and one of them, in particular, has been a key to Amazon’s supremacy as an on-line retailer and to its leadership in related industries, like cloud-based data solutions.
In his excellent 2-5-19 post on what he calls Bezos’ “writing management strategy,” Ben Bashaw gathered the underlying documentation and made several of the observations that I’ll be paraphrasing below. He starts off by noting:
There’s probably no technology company that values the written word and produces written output quite as much as Amazon….
Bezos is Amazon’s chief writing evangelist, and his advocacy for the art of long-form writing as a motivational tool and idea-generation technique has been ordering how people think and work at Amazon for the last two decades—most importantly, in how the company creates new ideas, how it shares them, and how it gets support for them from the wider world.
(How, how, how instead of why, why, why are questions that practical intellectuals ask.)
As a manager, Bezos grew impatient with meetings as brainstorming sessions early on. He came to appreciate what the behavioral research tends to prove: that individuals are better at coming up with new ideas on their own, while groups are better at recognizing the best ones and deciding how to implement them.
But he also appreciated that for groups to engage quickly, a new idea needed to be delivered “in high resolution detail” by the individual who had come up with it. The insight led to a June, 2004 email that banned the use of powerpoint presentations at Amazon and insisted that people with ideas tee-up the meetings that would receive them with tight, well-structured and reasoned narrative texts.
The reason writing a good 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.
Bezos banned powerpoint presentations company-wide because he knew that to generate new ideas consistently, a business needs better processes it can repeat every time. He was also convinced that writing your ideas down clarifies your thinking about them and improves the chance that your ideas will be good ones because you’ve thought nearly everything through beforehand.
When composing a detailed narrative, logical inconsistencies are no longer hidden but acknowledged and (if possible) addressed. To set up “a deep debate of the idea’s costs and merits,” these 4 pages are designed to be “a full logical argument” by the idea’s sponsor that includes a narrative about the issue; how others have attempted to address it before; how the sponsor’s approach differs; the advantage of the new idea to the company; a defense to potential objections; and attachments that include the relevant data. In other words, in drafting the memo, the idea’s sponsor has considered it from every angle he or she can think of before it’s presented.
A link that Bashaw includes in his post references first-hand group responses at Amazon after the sponsor provided his or her written narrative. Discussion is “very focused” around the proposal; meeting participants are “incredibly sharp” and “you can expect the meeting to be among the most difficult and intellectually challenging that you will ever attend”; “data is king” and had better be well-researched and assembled; and how Bezos would “consistently surprise” the idea’s sponsor with at least one question about “the big picture” that the sponsor had never considered before. No more rambling brainstorming meetings where powerpoints create the illusion of depth but fail to engage the participants productively. It is one practical reason why Amazon has grown as quickly and boldly as it has.
What may be most interesting here is how drafting a tightly written narrative that contains your full logical argument can stimulate engagement with groups and others that you need to engage on any issue that is truly important to your life and work. It is taking a full stand about something, declaring yourself in a way that immediately invites respect and collaboration. It is a demonstration that you’ve thought about everything you can think of already—including what these others stand to gain—on whatever issue you are raising. The work that you’ve put behind it makes you an immediately credible partner to explore the next steps.
In an aside to this basic wisdom, it’s hardly surprising that Bezos used his customary approach to narrative writing when he accused the National Enquirer of blackmail this week. The Enquirer threatened to publish nude pictures that Bezos took of himself during an extramarital affair if he refused to abandon prior legal claims that he had against the gossip page. (If you have not read Bezos’ refusal to bow to these threats because–as it turns out–he was willing to publish the photos himself, here is the link to “No Thank You, Mr. Pecker”.)
What I found interesting enough to share with you was the following: (1) how many other people, both in and outside business circles, take Bezos’ writing seriously and (2) how one subsequent commentator actually provided a tongue-in-cheek critique of his “think of everything” writing style a couple of days ago. Jenni Avinns, a writer for Quartz business news, led off with the observation that Bezos’ post “clocked in at fewer than 1500 words” or, by my calculation, the four pages that launch all good ideas at Amazon. Then she gave some additional observations on how Bezos writes down his thinking, including his willingness to:
Embrace the poetry
If pictures of your penis are at the center of the confrontation and the person threatening you is David Pecker, don’t shy away. (Even if your blue-chip private security consultant is de Becker and it rhymes.) Put that Pecker right in the headline. Put a “Mr.” in front of it to emphasize the indignity: “No thank you, Mr. Pecker.” …
Make up Words
If the English language isn’t complex enough to provide the word you need to describe how your ownership of a national media outlet complicates your dealings with other powerful people [including the President], make one up. “My ownership of the Washington Post is a complexifier for me.” People will know what you mean, and even appreciate that you didn’t permit a tedious copyeditor to question you, though you clearly employ some.
Make fun of their words with “scare quotes” and repetition
“Several days ago, an AMI leader advised us that Mr. Pecker is ‘apoplectic’ about our [i.e. the Post’s] investigation” of his company’s relationship with the Saudi government, wrote Bezos. Apoplectic is a strong word, and honestly makes this person sound kind of hysterical and unhinged. If someone says they’re apoplectic, turn it around and say it again, like it’s a medical condition: “A few days after hearing about Mr. Pecker’s apoplexy, we were approached, verbally at first, with an offer. “ …
Just [provide] the facts: I’m Jeff Bezos, and you’re not
If someone attempts to question your business acumen, school them:“ I founded Amazon in my garage 24 years ago, and drove all the packages to the post office myself. Today, Amazon employs more than 600,000 people, just finished its most profitable year ever, even while investing heavily in new initiatives, and it’s usually somewhere between the #1 and #5 most valuable company in the world.”
But act relatable
… “If in my position I can’t stand up to this kind of extortion, how many people can?”
Once again, great narrative writing skills always translate when you are trying to solve important problems at work or in private life. Unfortunately, they can rarely explain away incomprehensibly poor personal judgments. Perhaps it’s no accident that the last time I imagined pictures like this, they were taken by somebody who was (improbably and poetically) named Mr. Anthony Weiner.
On the other hand, and practically speaking once again, whether his post succeeds in solving Mr. Bezos’ immediate problem with the Enquirer is something I guess we’ll all just have to wait and see.
2. How I’ve Used This Kind of Narrative Writing Recently
An important problem ahead of me is attracting interest in my first book.
I want to make sure that its disparate parts (arguments, short stories, etc.) hang together; that they reinforce one another nicely and enhance the freshness of my thesis; that likely questions about the approach I’ve taken are asked and answered by me; and that the benefits to readers in my approach are clearly in mind throughout.
Moreover, these problems are closely related to another one, because what will attract a publisher most is a well-considered and organized book with fresh ideas that meets readers’ needs to take more satisfaction from their work.
These are precisely the kinds of problems that “tight narrative writing with high resolution detail” can package for everyone who faces me down the line, including agents, publishers, retailers (like Amazon) and, of course, the readers themselves. In other words, it’s not just about your book but how you tell the stories that need to be told to others about it.
For the past several months, I’ve been working on the written materials that serve up my book to everyone outside of my book writing process. Without handing out the book itself and expecting people to read it, these are the shorthand essentials: descriptions of key concepts and how they operate, along with demonstrations of my ability to persuade with an argument, tell a good story and understand who might be interested in them. In other words: tight narrative writing with high resolution detail.
Quite frankly, it has been a lot of work, but its almost done. I’ve been amazed by the foundation it has provided to promote my book and how much the book itself has changed (and improved) from my efforts to capture it in its own narrative.
I had also taken this approach before I learned that Jeff Bezos had been taking it at Amazon too. It’s a great idea that’s long been out there waiting to be picked up and put to good use. But best of all, anyone can take the same approach to face a challenging and skeptical world with a maximum of confidence when trying to solve an important problem.
This post was adapted from my February 10, 2019 newsletter