To Get to the Point, you need to Know the Point

It sometimes feels like you need lots of words/pages/slides to look/sound credible, but great communicators go through the hard work of refining their idea/message/recommendation down to a crisp, easy-to-digest message.

“I didn’t have time to write you a short letter, so I wrote you a long one” – Mark Twain

This concept is so valuable in so many ways — for example:

  • Getting to the root cause of an issue requires that you continue to ask “Why did this happen?” to get past the symptom/second-order effects, and get to the root (see 5 Why’s Technique)
  • In Product Management, it’s tempting to add many variations/options/different products, but it’s powerful when someone works on refining that down, like the classic story of Steve Jobs in 1997, created a simple grid with 4 product categories and shifted Apple to only make 1 product in each category, with a focus on excellence
  • When communicating with others, push yourself to try to get to the point faster — the US Military communicates very efficiently in this way, often using things like a Bottom Line Up Front (BLUF) or Executive Summaries (not to be confused with Introductions) to rapidly communicate the point, instead
  • When launching a new IT project, don’t rush through exercises like a project charter or determining the business case/justification/problem (see Digital Services Playbook, Play #1) — invest time in peeling back the layers of really understanding what the real problem you’re solving is — it will be well worth it!
  • Amazon has a meeting culture where the meeting requester/leader crafts a 6 page memo with the recommendations/context, and everyone in the meeting silently reads the memo to start the meeting.  The quote below shows their approach and their expectation that a good 6-page memo should take a week or more to develop and refine into a high-quality product.

We don’t do PowerPoint (or any other slide-oriented) presentations at Amazon. Instead, we write narratively structured six-page memos. We silently read one at the beginning of each meeting in a kind of “study hall.” Not surprisingly, the quality of these memos varies widely. Some have the clarity of angels singing. They are brilliant and thoughtful and set up the meeting for high-quality discussion. Sometimes they come in at the other end of the spectrum.

In the handstand example, it’s pretty straightforward to recognize high standards. It wouldn’t be difficult to lay out in detail the requirements of a well-executed handstand, and then you’re either doing it or you’re not. The writing example is very different. The difference between a great memo and an average one is much squishier. It would be extremely hard to write down the detailed requirements that make up a great memo. Nevertheless, I find that much of the time, readers react to great memos very similarly. They know it when they see it. The standard is there, and it is real, even if it’s not easily describable.

Here’s what we’ve figured out. Often, when a memo isn’t great, it’s not the writer’s inability to recognize the high standard, but instead a wrong expectation on scope: they mistakenly believe a high-standards, six-page memo can be written in one or two days or even a few hours, when really it might take a week or more! They’re trying to perfect a handstand in just two weeks, and we’re not coaching them right. The great memos are written and re-written, shared with colleagues who are asked to improve the work, set aside for a couple of days, and then edited again with a fresh mind. They simply can’t be done in a day or two. The key point here is that you can improve results through the simple act of teaching scope – that a great memo probably should take a week or more.

Jeff Bezos, Amazon Shareholders Letter

1 Comment

  1. While I am not sure of the 6-page memo approach, it would certainly slow down the incredible number of meetings most organizations seem to have. I wonder whether the suddenly distributed world we now inhabit has reduced the number of meetings, empowered teams, and individuals to make decisions or frozen work through inaction.

    What are you seeing?

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