Narrative not PowerPoint
Ronny Kohavi
Feb 3, 2018

A few days ago I received this e-mail from a Microsoft colleague:

I hear you have a really nice, structured way of holding meetings where you do a variant of the Amazon method of everyone reading the doc in question at the beginning of the meeting and discussion of comments in doc thereafter.
Have you ever written down this methodology, with best practices? …

I’ve used this process since I joined Microsoft in 2005, after having experienced it at Amazon just prior.  As with most ideas, it has its pros and cons, which I’ll note below, but the bottom line is that it has worked very well.  Because we use it in our weekly checkpoint partner meetings, multiple groups were “forced” to experience it.

Here is the brief summary, followed by an Appendix of references.

  1. Prior to the meeting, a group of authors write the document for the meeting.
    In the case of our weekly checkpoint meetings with partners (we meet weekly, each partner is reviewed about every 4-8 weeks), the authors are both from our team and from the partner team.
    This is the most critical part of the process.

    1. There are multiple great quotes about planning, such as Dr. Graeme Edwards “It's not the plan that is important, it's the planning,” or Dwight D. Eisenhower’s “In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.” Winston Churchill presumably said “Plans are of little importance, but planning is essential.”  The process of preparing the document is important, and the next point explains why it's important that it be a narrative.
    2. The authors need to think precisely about key points. You can “wing it” verbally when you explain a bullet on PowerPoint but phrasing something in complete sentences requires more thought.  Writing a document with sections and paragraphs to make a point requires clearer thinking than a set of slides with bullet points on each.
    3. Especially when working with partners, the phrasing of issues for a joint presentation forces the teams to agree in advance on key points to share. When they don’t, they’ll resort to stating the facts, and the multiple differing opinions will be presented in the document, although this is very rare; just the fact that stating to the document reviewers that you’re unable to agree on the phrasing, makes the people seem immature.    Note that this is not about the pros/cons for a solution, but about the phrasing of the problem or the pros/cons.
    4. The document should be objective: include the good and the bad. Both extremes are bad and suffer from the Halo Effect (see Phil Rosenzweig’s great book).
      You sometimes see presentations where everything is great, and you lose trust.  Rose-colored glasses are fine for morale events, but we want to know where things are and where we can improve.  Is everything so perfect that nothing can be improved?  Are there no challenges?
      Conversely, some presentations are basically an escalation: things are bad; terrible. Nothing good is happening.  Celebrating some progress helps in such situations.
  2. The meeting starts by everyone reading the document and commenting for a considerable amount of time. There is no expected pre-read.  The duration for reading is typically as follows
    1. If it’s mostly an update, 2/3 of the time is reading. We read customer onboarding documents for about 20 minutes out of 30 minutes, or 30 minutes out of a 45 minute slot.
      Some people claim that update meetings could be in e-mail, and I disagree.  Getting the leadership team aligned on the data, giving *some* feedback together, and having a quick discussion about “how can we help” is highly valuable.  These documents have a lot of information, so few will read them unless we explicitly block time on the calendar.
    2. If it’s a problem that requires feedback and discussion, the reading time is a shorter portion of the overall meeting, perhaps 10-20 minutes out of the hour. Ideally the document contains pros/cons and a recommendation from the authors.

      The calendar invite should contain a link to the doc, or to a OneNote/Sharepoint where we can quickly find the document.  Sometimes, we IM the doc to the Skype meeting, or give is a short aka.ms (bitly equivalent) short name.  This is where we differ from Amazon, which (at least when I was there, and I believe recently) hands out physical pieces of paper.

      It is critical that the document be on a share, typically for us it’s Onedrive for business or Sharepoint, so multiple people can edit the SAME doc. The Word collaboration features are critical here.  As people read, they add margin comments in Word.  The benefits of collaboration are very important here:

      1. Many comments are minor (style, lack of clarity, typos). The authors address these comments, many times during the meeting, as the reading process happens.  If a comment is addressed, the authors resolve it in word (so it becomes greyed out).
      2. Comments may be useful to the authors, but not worth discussing. They’re typically addressed after the meeting.  It’s very common to see “+1” added to comments in support of the feedback.
      3. Comments that the commenter (or others reading) want to discuss are highlighted.

      The advantages of collaborative editing over paper are many.

      1. You get to see other people’s comments and sometimes add +1 or respond
      2. Authors can start addressing some comments while the reading happens, clarifying areas, etc.
      3. When the meeting ends, the authors have all the comments from everyone and can address them.

       

  3. When the allotted time ends, we start discussing the highlighted comments.
    It’s important to give people sufficient time to read. The fast skimmers tend to finish quickly, and the slow and careful readers (like myself, and I remember Jeff Bezos was usually slow) take more time.  Leaders should intentionally go slow, so that there’s no pressure on others to finish quickly.   If you’re done reading early, look at some other people’s comments and respond with +1 or why you think otherwise.
  4. After the meeting, the authors address the comments (usually all, sometimes leaving a few worth sharing) and e-mail the link to the doc to a wider audience. I suggest an SLA of 3 days after the meeting to clean it up and send.

 

The Pros of a Narrative

  1. The writing forces clearer thinking, as noted above (planning is more important than the plan).
    See also great quotes below in the references.
  2. Readers/reviewers actually read the document. There’s no pre-reading needed, and everyone is updated and aligned after reading.  E-mails of long documents often never get read, so this is a great forcing function.
  3. Most feedback can be made and addressed without a discussion. In some cases, the feedback is a request for a piece of data that the authors can get.  The discussion focuses on those highlighted comments that are useful to discuss.
  4. If you miss a meeting, the document is a great way to get updated. If I miss an onboarding review, which is rare, I’ll block the time to read it.
  5. It gives every reviewer equal voice, so you get diverse opinions. Everyone can add comments (and think about writing them) instead of the typical loudest voice or HiPPO.
  6. It’s a record of the thinking at a point in time. I sometimes go back and look at an older doc, especially when I have to swap-in a topic that we haven’t discussed for a while.
    If the document is on a share that has history (usually the case), you can go back and look at the feedback/comments, and how the “plan of record” evolved.

 

 

The Cons of a Narrative

  1. Some people are more comfortable listening and talking than reading/writing.
    Peter Drucker made this insightful observation in Managing Oneself: some people are better readers; some are better listeners.
  2. It takes time.   It takes more time if you constrain writers to 6 pages, as Amazon does.  As any author of a document knows, reducing a page or two takes a LONG time.  The document will probably be better after wordsmithing it, but there’s a tradeoff.

I believe pages are not a great way to constrain a document.  For example, we look at controlled experiments, and a screen shot of control and treatment works much better than a description for many visual changes, but those screen shots could take a whole page.   Some documents are dense with new information, some are incremental updates.
We let authors decide, and they have to write a doc that readers can read in in the allotted time.  The general guidance is to think about what you want the readers to know or discuss and move the details into the appendix.

 

When Not to use Narratives

Here are some scenarios where narratives are less useful:

  1. When you’re presenting to an audience that doesn’t expect it: sales presentation at a customer
  2. When you’re teaching or sharing information with a mostly passive audience: conference or teacher in class
  3. When the topic wouldn’t interest most of the invited attendee.  One person suggested I do a narrative review of this document with my team.  That’s probably an overkill.
  4. When there’s a very large: think 100 people at a presentation (usually correlates with teaching a mostly passive audience)
  5. When there’s an important piece of audio (possibly with video).  People don’t come with headsets to our meetings.
  6. When the presentation style is important: TED talks, comedy

 

Acknowledgements

Thanks to Bret Brewer for feedback and asking when not to use narratives.  Thanks to Nils Pohlmann and Greg Linden for suggestions.

 

References

There are many references out there to the Amazon narrative approach.  Here are some with selected excerpts

  1. http://blog.idonethis.com/jeff-bezos-self-discipline-writing/
  • …real magic happens before the meeting ever starts. It happens when the author is writing the memo.
  • It’s unconventional, tough and incredibly time-consuming. But Bezos’s management trick does one thing incredibly well—by forcing his team to use the medium of the written word, the author of the memo really has to think through what he or she wants to present.
  • Legendary CEO of Intel, Andy Grove, takes Bezos’s view on writing up a notch. Grove considers written reports vital because “the author is forced to be more precise than he might be verbally.” In fact, he considers the whole exercise of writing “more of a medium of self-discipline than a way to communicate information,” so much so that his ultimate conviction was that “writing the report is important; reading it often is not.”
  • Bezos and Grove’s imposition of writing as a medium turns self-discipline and personal reflection into a distributed process. Reflection is a fundamental way to think through and give yourself feedback on your work, where feedback can be otherwise rather scarce in the workplace but integral to improving the quality of your thought and action. Encouraging reports to engage in the reflective process of writing helps each and every individual autonomously work toward becoming a master of their craft.
  1. https://www.hirevue.com/build-blog/what-i-learned-from-jeff-bezos-about-sales-management
    • For those not familiar with the Narrative process, it involves the presenter preparing a 4-6 page memo written as a document, not a PowerPoint presentation. Prose is the active word here: complete sentences, paragraphs, and complete thoughts in the introduction, supporting body, and conclusion.
      [Here is the original e-mail from Jeff, which I remember seeing when I was at Amazon. RonnyK]

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  1. http://fortune.com/2012/11/16/amazons-jeff-bezos-the-ultimate-disrupter/
  • They scribble notes in the margins while the authors of the memos wait for Bezos and his minions to finish reading.
  • Bezos says the act of communal reading guarantees the group’s undivided attention. Writing a memo is an even more important skill to master. “Full sentences are harder to write,” he says. “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.”

 

  1. http://blogs.ltcrevolution.com/signature-learning/2016/09/15/the-6-page-memo-what-i-learned-from-amazon/
  • It forces deep thinking.
  • It respects time.
  • It levels the playing field.
  • It leads to good decisions.
  • It prevents the popularity bias.
  1. https://www.quora.com/How-are-the-six-page-narratives-structured-in-Jeff-Bezos-S-Team-meetings
  2. https://www.quora.com/What-is-the-format-used-when-composing-an-Amazon-6-page-narratively-structured-memo