Jeff Bezos: Amazon employees should start meetings by reading memos ‘with the clarity of angels singing’

Amazon’s CEO says employees don’t do PowerPoint or any other slide-oriented presentations during meetings

Executives at Amazon have an eccentric — and nerve-wracking — way to begin meetings.

Amazon AMZN CEO Jeff Bezos wrote in his annual shareholders’ letter that they don’t do PowerPoint presentations at Amazon. “Instead, we write narratively structured six-page memos,” he said. “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,” Bezos said in the letter released Wednesday. “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.”

‘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.’

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos

And the secret to writing a memo that makes the gods weep? They can’t be written in a couple of hours, Bezos wrote. “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.”

A superb memo writer doesn’t necessarily need to have a way with words. “The football coach doesn’t need to be able to throw, and a film director doesn’t need to be able to act,” Bezos wrote. “But they both do need to recognize high standards for those things and teach realistic expectations on scope.”

The good news: Individual employees at Amazon don’t take the credit (or the fall) for memos. “Someone on the team needs to have the skill, but it doesn’t have to be you,” Bezos added. “As a side note, by tradition at Amazon, authors’ names never appear on the memos — the memo is from the whole team.”

But are memos and meetings a waste of everyone’s time?

Indeed, taking credit for a memo can go horribly wrong. Last year, Google fired James Damore, a software engineer who wrote a 10-page memo describing Google’s approach to diversity as “authoritarian.” Others called the memo tone deaf and even misogynistic.

Microsoft’s CEO, meanwhile, does not appear to subscribe to Bezos’s approach to meetings. “The more senior you are, the more careful you need to be in setting up meetings,” Microsoft MSFT  CEO Satya Nadella told the Freakonomics podcast last month.

‘You don’t need to have pre-meetings for essentially what is going to be a discussion. I think [that] can help cut down the amount of time people spend on meetings. It’s simple, yet it has a profound impact in organization.’

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella

Senior employees have too many meetings, Nadella said. “You don’t need to have pre-meetings for essentially what is going to be a discussion. I think [that] can help cut down the amount of time people spend on meetings. It’s simple, yet it has a profound impact in organization.”

While investors gasped at the twists and turns of the Dow Jones Industrial Average DJIA in recent weeks, Bezos has given Amazon shareholders reason to feel optimistic. He also announced late Wednesday that Amazon Prime members topped 100 million worldwide. “In 2017 Amazon shipped more than 5 billion items with Prime worldwide,” he wrote.