The power of the Amazon narrative

Jeff Bezos, widely regarded as the most admired businessman in the world, advocates for the power of writing as a strategy to accomplish significant goals in both life and business. His approach is so profound that he has even prohibited the use of PowerPoint presentations in meetings, opting instead for six-page narrative texts. By doing so, he transforms his team members into skilled writers who can effectively express their ideas.

24 May 2023

We invite you to explore the latest book that delves into Bezos’ formula, revealing the insights behind his writing-based strategy.

Carmine Gallo, a Harvard professor and the author of “The Bezos Blueprint: Communication Secrets of the World’s Greatest Salesman,” invites us into the often-overlooked domain of Jeff Bezos: the world of communication. Gallo contends that Bezos’ annual letters to shareholders provide a distinct vantage point. He explains to the AP that, until now, no book has undertaken the analysis of the 48,000 words penned by the Amazon owner over a period of 24 years in these letters addressed to stakeholders. As a result, Gallo’s book presents an exhaustive examination of the communication skills wielded by one of the most revered and accomplished entrepreneurs in the world.

In his analysis, Gallo delves into the precise count of 48,062 words and examines the 2,481 sentences found within Bezos’ letters. With an average sentence length of 18.8 words, Gallo measures their readability using the Flesch-Kincaid scale, created in the 1940s. He demonstrates that the letters were written at a level understandable to an 8th-grade student. Gallo further notes that Bezos intentionally reduced his sentence length to an average of 16 words, achieving an appropriate readability score.

The value of easy-to-read writing lies in the fact that our brains are not primarily wired for deep thinking. Gallo references neuroscientist and author Lisa Feldman Barrett, who emphasizes that the brain’s core function is to regulate the body’s energy needs, rather than to engage in complex thinking.

Hence, Bezos’ deliberate style of expression is not random but strategic, aimed at accomplishing his set goals. Understanding his communication skills becomes crucial in comprehending the success of Amazon and his personal brand.

Gallo, who teaches knowledge in an advanced leadership program at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design, emphasizes the significance of speech. He suggests that sentences should always commence with subjects and verbs that carry the remainder of the sentence—a formula that Bezos applies effectively.

However, the arrangement of words within a sentence also holds great importance. The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) explains that many writing instructors advise placing the strongest part at the beginning (the locomotive) and saving an intriguing word for the end (the caboose). The less impactful information typically resides in the middle. Gallo provides an illustrative example from Shakespeare’s “Macbeth,” where a messenger utters the line, “The queen, my lord, is dead.” Shakespeare could have written, “The queen is dead, my lord,” but he consciously structured the sentence to lead with the locomotive and save the surprise for the caboose, understanding that it would make the sentence more powerful.

According to Gallo, whether you are writing an article, document, or email, you have a mere 15 seconds to capture the reader’s attention. In that brief timeframe, which equates to the time it takes a person to read about 35 words, you must make a strong impression. After those initial 15 seconds, approximately 45% of readers will start to lose interest.

While Gallo points that human attention spans have remained consistent since the 19th century, he notes that there are now more stimuli competing for our attention. To captivate someone effectively, the key lies not in reducing the noise but in amplifying the signal, as he asserts to the WSJ.

Above all, Bezos prioritizes narrative. In the summer of 2004, he made a significant decision that impacted his executive team: he banned PowerPoint presentations and replaced them with “narratively written texts” spanning no more than six pages. These texts are read silently by executives before meetings in the boardroom.

Bezos actively encouraged all individuals, including himself, to enhance their writing skills. Through this transformative technique, he cultivated a “writing culture” within Amazon, turning communication into a competitive advantage. Both current and former Amazon executives emphasize the pivotal role of this writing culture as a key factor behind the company’s remarkable success.

It may seem paradoxical that the world’s leading e-commerce company opted to replace a modern presentation tool with a communication technique that has existed for over 5,000 years: the written word.

Bezos firmly believed that clear writing is a reflection of clear thinking, and he recognized that it fosters better decision-making. This philosophy underscores the significant influence that effective writing can have in driving success and innovation within an organization.

Bezos has a clear preference for using active sentences, where the subject performs the action, such as “Jeff Bezos founded Amazon in 1994.” In contrast, the passive form would be “Amazon was founded by Jeff Bezos in 1994.” Renowned writer Stephen King criticizes the passive voice, claiming it ruins “almost any business document ever written.” Bezos seems to have taken this advice to heart, as passive sentences make up only 6.5% of the text in his shareholder letters.

The concept of “Always Day 1” has been a guiding principle for Bezos since 1998. He would attach a copy of his first letter, accompanied by the reminder to maintain the mindset of “Always Day 1.” This idea signifies more than just a single day—it represents a mindset of customer obsession, long-term thinking, and a willingness to innovate.

In 2016, Bezos unveiled his definition of “Day 2.” According to him, Day 2 signifies stasis, followed by irrelevance, an excruciating decline, and ultimately, death. This highlights why Bezos continuously emphasizes the importance of staying in the “Day 1” mindset—remaining dynamic, adaptive, and always striving for growth and innovation.

During his tenure of 9,863 days at Amazon, Jeff Bezos consistently approached his work as if it were his first day, maintaining a sense of freshness and drive.

From the very beginning, Bezos laid down a foundational principle in his first letter—the obsession over the customer. This guiding principle would shape the company’s decisions for the next 25 years. Two years later, he formalized this idea in Amazon’s mission, declaring their quest to build “Earth’s most customer-centric company.”

However, a mission statement alone holds little value without a leader who continually reinforces and expands upon it. Bezos exemplified this by mentioning the word “customer” 506 times across the 24 letters he wrote to stakeholders, averaging 21 times per letter.

Bezos also demonstrated his mastery of metaphor through the naming of his company as “Amazon.” This choice served as a metaphor, drawing a comparison between the company and the Amazon River, highlighting its vastness. In 1998, Bezos explained that he wanted to convey that Amazon is “the biggest bookstore on Earth,” just as the Amazon River is “the biggest river on Earth,” as reported by Business Insider.

Neuroscientists explain that our brains are wired to use metaphors as a means of communication and processing the world around us. When encountering something new, our brains instinctively seek familiar comparisons. Effective communicators, like Bezos, utilize metaphors as educational tools, helping readers and listeners grasp complex concepts by providing relatable connections.