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October 03, 2019

How to lead with a great narrative – the Jeff Bezos way

Written by Kristen Kalupski
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Writing a company memo is a key to effective communication – and leadership. That’s what Jeff Bezos believes. Yes, a company memo – a communications tool that we often take for granted and even dread writing. According to a new book, Think Like Amazon, Jeff Bezos expects company leaders to write their ideas as memos in the form of compelling, clear narratives – and then share the memos to be reviewed by their peers at team meetings. No PowerPoints. No flashy presentations. Just memos.

Four Questions a Narrative Should Address

As discussed in a recent Forbes column by communications coach Carmine Gallo, “How the First 15 Minutes Of Amazon’s Leadership Meetings Spark Great Ideas And Better Conversations,” Amazon leadership meetings literally begin in silence as participants read each other’s memos for 15 minutes. Each memo consists of a narrative for all plans, proposals, services, and investments. The narratives cover essential questions about an idea, such as:

  • Who are the customers for the idea?
  • What benefits are we bringing to them?
  • What problems are we solving for them?
  • Why would this idea delight them?

But why memos and not PowerPoint? According to Former Amazon executive John Rossman, author of The Amazon Way (quoted in the Carmine Gallo column), Bezos believes that writing narratives requires the author to articulate and flesh out ideas clearly – something that is seldom (if ever) done well via PowerPoint bullet points. PowerPoint and Keynote (when used well) boil down the essence of an idea. But writing a narrative forces you to exercise more mental and creative rigor – for instance, by threading together concepts and themes with proper transitional sentences and by truly explaining why an idea demands the attention of your audience rather than listing fragments of thought.

Why CEOs Must Own Corporate Brand Values

Through his actions, Jeff Bezos underscores the importance of well written letters and memos. As our own CEO Don Scales discussed in a February 2019 Forbes column, “Why CEOs Must Own Corporate Brand Values,” each year Amazon republishes Jeff Bezos’s first-ever letter to shareholders, a testament to how seriously Bezos takes them. In April, Amazon published Bezos’s most recent shareholder letter. This was not the bland missive that many shareholders come to expect from CEOs. This was a provocative communication. For instance, he wrote,

As a company grows, everything needs to scale, including the size of your failed experiments. If the size of your failures isn’t growing, you’re not going to be inventing at a size that can actually move the needle. Amazon will be experimenting at the right scale for a company of our size if we occasionally have multibillion-dollar failures. Of course, we won’t undertake such experiments cavalierly. We will work hard to make them good bets, but not all good bets will ultimately pay out. This kind of large-scale risk taking is part of the service we as a large company can provide to our customers and to society. The good news for shareowners is that a single big winning bet can more than cover the cost of many losers. 

Development of the Fire phone and Echo was started around the same time. While the Fire phone was a failure, we were able to take our learnings (as well as the developers) and accelerate our efforts building Echo and Alexa. The vision for Echo and Alexa was inspired by the Star Trek computer. The idea also had origins in two other arenas where we’d been building and wandering for years: machine learning and the cloud. From Amazon’s early days, machine learning was an essential part of our product recommendations, and AWS gave us a front row seat to the capabilities of the cloud. After many years of development, Echo debuted in 2014, powered by Alexa, who lives in the AWS cloud. 

No customer was asking for Echo. This was definitely us wandering. Market research doesn’t help. If you had gone to a customer in 2013 and said “Would you like a black, always-on cylinder in your kitchen about the size of a Pringles can that you can talk to and ask questions, that also turns on your lights and plays music?” I guarantee you they’d have looked at you strangely and said “No, thank you.”

Think about those words. How many CEOs are willing to discuss their failures, assure investors that the failures will continue – and then link those failures to innovation?

Lessons for Investor Relations and Communications Executives

The lessons for corporate investor relations and communications executives are clear:

  • Your CEO needs to craft effective narratives that spark the imagination of your employees, customers, and shareholders.
  • PowerPoint bullets are not effective narratives.
  • CEOs can and should expect their direct reports to share effective narratives, too.

Amazon’s success has happened for many reasons. Jeff Bezos’s ability to lead through communication is one of them. How well is your CEO sharing compelling narratives that inspire others to action?

Contact Investis Digital

For more insight into how to create a compelling communications narrative that inspires employees, customers, and shareholders, contact Investis Digital. Our Connected Content approach ensures that you craft and share content that is consistent across all audiences and channels.

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