Innovation at Amazon: Why Good Writing Matters More than Public Speaking
Aligning with the customer is so deeply embedded in Amazon’s culture that each time a staffer pitches a new idea, they must start by writing a 6-page “narrative” explaining the initiative from the point-of-view of a customer. PowerPoints are philosophically banned for condoning lazy thinking.
“It’s very easy to put six bullet points up on a slide. You can hide a lot of details in between the bullet points,” Noah Levin, senior manager of technical product management for Amazon Fresh and Prime Now said at a recent event at Product School New York.
The first item in the memo is a mock press release announcing the product, describing its features and how it resolves a pain point for the hypothetical customer.
Next is an FAQ section - one for customers, another for internal stakeholders - to anticipate potential questions and concerns from customers as well as internal stakeholders like the CFO as well as the engineering, operations and leadership teams.
His disdain for bullet points led Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos to famously ban PowerPoint decks at meetings. Supposedly, the presentation format emphasizes minutiae like graphic design skills or the presenter’s oration, while detracting from what really matters: the business idea itself.
“None of that should matter; this is not a sales pitch. You’re trying to make a business decision,’ said Levin. “If you want to be grounded in the facts of the matter and what you know as opposed to how you can sell it, writing is a really clean way to strip all that away.”
The first 30 minutes of an Amazon pitch meeting are spent silently reading the memo, and then a firestorm of questions is directed at its scribe, whose palms are now presumably sweaty and heart palpitating.
“It’s a weird process - it’s super weird. But it’s effective,” concedes Levin, who has worked at Amazon since 2012.
Here are the three steps for presenting a new idea at Amazon.
1. Draft the press release and FAQs
The press release starts with a headline that clarifies what is being announced, while the first paragraph summarizes the what, why, when and who of the idea. Beyond that, the rest of the text is framed from the customer’s viewpoint, starting with a problem or pain point in the customer’s world followed by the solution. Like any standard press release, this includes a real quote from a member of the leadership team.
“It’s a small way of validating your idea as you go through the process,” explained Levin, “and getting a sense of what leadership cares about.”
The final section is a call-to-action: where to find the product, how to buy it and where to find more information.
Lastly, the FAQ section for customers reads similar to what one might find in the FAQ section for any company website or product page - elaborating on commonsense, anticipated questions around features, usage and purchase. Meanwhile, the FAQ section for internal stakeholders contains the meat of the argument for why your idea makes business sense and how it might be executed.
Two questions Amazon staffers tend to use for this section are: What are the hotly debated topics? and Is this a one-way door?
The first question refers to any controversy or likely pushback that might occur during execution, while the second asks whether or not the business decision is reversible. If not, it’s considered a one-way door.
Meanwhile, a two-way door means the decision can be iterated or corrected if things go wrong. In a previous position at Amazon managing memberships for the Lawn & Garden vertical, Levin was responsible for pricing lawnmowers. “If I priced a lawnmower incorrectly and we lost money, I could change the price instantly. That’s a two-way door,” Levin offered by way of example.
Conversely, the stakes are much higher for a product manager overseeing Kindle hardware, which releases only one new device per year. Short of a product recall, design glitches can’t be rectified until the next product development cycle.
The final component of an Amazon press release is called “tenets.” These are business rules that define how the product or experience will be delivered. For instance, it might specify what materials the product is made with, acceptable delivery timeframe, or price point.
“Tenets are short rules that guide future decisions,” explained Levin, adding that this section is always the hardest to write because it must consider the impact on all departments, from production to engineering, operations, logistics and more.
2. Present your idea
Before the meeting, send your colleagues a soft copy and provide a stack of hard copies at the meeting. Make sure the first 20-30 minutes are spent reading in silence. Then, tell the audience you’ll be going through the memo together page by page - but first, ask if there were any overall thoughts or comments as a quick temperature check. As you page through the memo together, give your listeners a chance to ask questions and make suggestions.
After the first meeting, take the feedback you received and rewrite the press release. Garner more feedback. Ideas that survive these rigors may go into production, at which point the press release gets circulated to all concerned departments, and is stapled to the front of the product brief and consulted over and over every step of the way.
“When I’m meeting with the engineering team and I’m writing a requirements document, the press release is usually stapled to the front of the document,” said Levin. “Having a press release on the front that makes it clear what is the context for the customer, and it’s unbelievably powerful.”
3. Don’t shy away from the process
Taking the time to write a 6-page memo to present an innovative idea means sticking your neck out and taking ownership for a new initiative. In other words, it means being an entrepreneur.
“Be a storyteller, be a Disney screenwriter. And ask for what you need. Don’t let the document fizzle out at the end,” said Levin. “Sometimes you literally give someone a dotted line to sign on and say, ‘I need this approved.’”
He admits that the act of sitting and silently reading for 30 minutes with your coworkers is an awkward process, but the clarity of thought that emerges from it is irreplaceable. “It’s really uncomfortable for everyone but it’s worth it.”