Jeff Bezos, the world’s richest man, insists on unconventional six-page memos for all meetings. In this blog post, we provide you with essential tips for summarising the key issues in a way that is considered, stimulating and easy to read.
Amazon’s owner and founder has many idiosyncratic business practices. Be it his ‘two-pizza rule’ for meeting sizes (never have a meeting where two pizzas couldn't feed the entire group), or his refusal to use an alarm clock. He recently hit the headlines for his insights into Amazon’s philosophy on memos.
Bezos revealed meetings begin with 30-minutes of silence where attendees read through a ‘narratively structured’ memo which he believes should take ‘a week or more’ to prepare. Bezos, however, struggled to articulate what exactly a ‘great’ memo is: ‘It would be extremely hard to write down the detailed requirements that make up a great memo’.
Sounds like a copywriting challenge. So here goes...
1. Core Message
When writing a memo, ask yourself: can I summarise it in a sentence? For any communication to be easy to assimilate, there needs to be an overarching idea – usually an argument it makes and then proves. No matter how many points are covered there must be this unifying thread.
Meetings have become an object of ire in the modern workplace. Reid Hastie, Professor of Behavioural Science at the University of Chicago, asserts that this is due to a lack of ‘clear objectives or an agenda’. To remedy this, make sure your memo clearly communicates the current position and states tangible goals.
2. Planning is all
Once you’ve established your core message, you can’t just jump in to the prose. It’s time to plan the structure. Thomas Hood declared in Copyright and Copywrong (1837), ‘the easiest reading is damned hard writing’. He reasons the experience of a reader is always dependent on the skill of, or the effort put in by, the writer. And he’s right.
A writer needs to spend time reviewing the content of a memo so it will anticipate any questions a reader may have. Then spend more time structuring it to achieve the most logical order. Only when they’re happy with the flow of information and the build-up of ideas should they begin to write.
This sense of the right info in the right order is what people mean by a ‘good narrative’ – it gives the information the grip of a good story. Once the memo has this, people will be more likely to read and understand its contents. And that will help the meeting produce better outcomes.
Keep it simple. You're writing a memo not Memento.
3. Topic Sentences
Another tool to keep the reader on track is the topic sentence. This is used at the beginning of a paragraph/section and communicates the controlling thought (e.g. ‘A shorter lunch break and earlier finish will increase productivity’). Readers don’t need to work out what you mean as you’ve told them. You still have to make a case by presenting relevant detail and supporting evidence, but the original point is made loud and clear.
4. Linking phrases
With a ‘narratively structured’ memo, one key point may be explained over several paragraphs. The more time spent reading means an increased chance the reader loses your train of thought. Use linking phrases to coax the reader along and hold their attention. For example, if you utilise the phrase 'There are many reasons why this is true', you can feel yourself being pulled along by the prose. This is because linking phrases grant your writing forward momentum by telling the reader 'there's more to come'.
All of this clarity takes time, which brings us to Jeff Bezos’s last point: ‘a great memo should probably take a week or more’ to write. It’s hard to structure an argument then craft clear copy. When you think you’ve done it, you should take a break – ideally overnight – and come back to the piece with fresh eyes. Or better yet, ask someone else to take a look.
To summarise, a great memo needs: a clear central message, a logical flow, topic sentences and linking phrases - and enough time to do it all. Good luck!