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How to write an Amazon-style narrative memo
Making sure your strategy survives the medium
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In 2004 Jeff Bezos banned powerpoint inside Amazon, and replaced them with 4-page memos (later expanded to 6-page memos). Here’s the email he sent:
“From: Bezos, Jeff
Sent: Wednesday, June 09, 2004 6:02 pm
Subject: Re: No powerpoint presentations from now on at steam
A little more help with the question “why.”
Well structured, narrative text is what we’re after rather than just text. If someone builds a list of bullet points in word, that would be just as bad as powerpoint.
The reason writing a good 4 page memo is harder than “writing” a 20 page powerpoint is because the narrative structure of a good memo forces better thought and better understanding of what’s more important than what, and how things are related.
Powerpoint-style presentations somehow give permission to gloss over ideas, flatten out any sense of relative importance, and ignore the interconnectedness of ideas.”
I’ve seen a lot of tech companies try and adopt this same approach. A lot of founders and executives “want to be like Jeff” and mandate some form of narrative writing (usually without going so far as banning powerpoint…)
So it might be the case that you’re suddenly required to present your strategy using a narrative memo format. Where do you begin? How to make it good?
Your company typically will give you some kind of template to work from but this is about as helpful as the standard presentation template your company gives you…. (i.e. not very!)
Writing is supposed to be a natural medium that everyone is familiar with but you should understand that great narratives are incredibly hard to write. Like, almost impossible. Jeff Bezos opens his 2017 shareholder letter with a story about learning how to do a handstand…!
After coaching several executive teams on how to write good narrative memos I’ve seen some common mistakes and thought I’d write up a guide with some advice, because it’s kind of an unnatural format. There are a ton of guides on how to write a 6-page Amazon-style memo but most of them are not very useful - they focus on the formulaic structure and rules rather than how to write an effective narrative.
If you’re just learning about narrative memos I’d suggest reading this: The Anatomy of an Amazon 6-pager. It’s a good primer and overview but still prizes formulaic rule following over the principles that will make a narrative effective.
Ok, so let’s dive in.
Firstly, Business Writing Basics
The first instinct when writing is to use hedging and soft language. Strip that out. You should feel free to weave narrative stories if you want, but when you’re describing business results, be specific and measurable.
So instead of “our brand awareness is increasing” you should write “brand awareness grew 15% during 2022”.
Instead of “Most users don’t use the save article feature” you should write “Only 5% of users use the save article feature”.
Not only is this more objective and clearer for the reader, but it forces you to think clearly - you are forced to quantify and articulate the specific data underlying your assumptions.
So your first goal should be to strip away the fluff, write more directly and add numbers.
How to write a good memo
Ok, so you’ve got the basics of the document structure and writing clearly. But how do you actually make your narrative effective? Here are the four ways that I often see narrative memos trip up:
You don’t give enough context for the situation, so people don’t understand correctly what you’re doing, the magnitude of impact or why they should care
You bury your asks in paragraphs of text so that the reader can’t distinguish what’s important from the other paragraphs
You outline opportunities or asks without situating them in business value so the reader doesn’t care about them
You ask for resources without evidence that you’ll be able to use the resources to meet your goals so you fail to convince the reader that it’s a worthwhile use of funds
So let’s break these down into four ways you can strengthen your memo and make it more effective:
#1 Situation & Context
Every narrative memo is supposed to have an introduction and a state of the business section. But despite this, it’s often the weakest part of the narrative.
As we covered in how to make an SEO strategy, good strategy consists of a diagnosis, guiding policy and coherent action. This diagnosis should not be under-estimated - it’s not a simple summary, it’s not a high level snapshot of metrics, it’s not a single chart. It’s a detailed look at the current situation, paired with an expert diagnosis to inform the reader about “what is going on”.
Because the situation tees up the whole strategy, it’s often one of the last sections that I edit - working on this section ensures that whatever strategy you’re proposing actually relates back to the situation.
Let’s look at an example. Imagine you’re working on content marketing and write a situation like this:
Overall, we wrote 280 pieces of content in 2022, driving 2.3m visits * Evergreen guides: 30 * News articles: 120 * How-to content: 85 * Cost of living pieces: 45
While there’s data here, there’s no diagnosis. Are these numbers good or bad? Are we increasing or decreasing?
Questions to ask yourself about the situation:
Does this data tie directly back to business value?
Can I show how this data is changing over time?
Can I show how this data relates to key competitors or industry benchmarks?
When I look ahead to the proposed strategy, how can I ensure the situation supports the need for the proposed course of action?
#2 Focus on What’s Important
A long narrative memo can become a wall of text. In my experience, most organizations don’t have Jeff Bezos breathing down their neck forcing them to be quiet and focused at the start of meetings to actually closely read the memo.
According to the strict Amazon style guide you’re not allowed to use bullet points but I think that’s a bit heavy handed. (I’d go so far as to venture that the all-time greatest AND worst narrative memos don’t use bullet points. So think carefully about trying to create a sense of focus and clarity using only paragraphs of text.)
Just because you’re writing a document doesn’t mean you can’t consider structure, formatting and hierarchy of information.
Consider an example like this:
There is a mismatch between the editorial approach to producing content, which is primarily focused on news, editorial and social media and the SEO approach to producing content, which is focused on authority, evergreen rankings and depth. As a result we’re not capturing key evergreen keyword terms - like “best headphones” that can drive ecommerce revenue. We would benefit from taking an “SEO-first” approach - moving content production and oversight into the SEO team for commerce content
This recommendation to move content production into the SEO team is buried at the end of a paragraph at the end of page 5 of a memo. This is no small project however, requiring buy-in and changes across the editorial team and the SEO team, not to mention political challenges persuading the editorial team to give up control of this content. If this is one of the key initiatives being proposed don’t bury it!
Questions to ask yourself about the structure:
Have I summarized the document by putting the “headline items” at the start of the memo?
Have I summarized every paragraph by starting with a key phrase that summarizes the key point of the paragraph?
Have I bolded or called attention to any key items?
Have I made the most important thing, the most important thing?
#3 Tie to Business Value
We’ve talked about the dangerous phrase “you should” before. This applies in spades for narrative memos - you need to ensure that you’re not venturing ideas, you’re venturing a business case.
Not “you should” but “there is an opportunity to”. Quantify the potential impact of your recommendations.
The narrative structure might look something like this:
2023 Key Priorities - Invest in winning our key rankings For us to succeed we need to focus on winning the pages that matter most. We should treat these pages like products - separate from the rest of our content. To be specific, these are our category pages and inspiration pages. The page value of a category page is more than that of the next 50 pages in the category combined Category Pages: Key activity #1 Key activity #2 Key activity #3 Inspiration Pages: Key activity #1 Key activity #2 Key activity #3
There’s good detail and focus here - it’s easy to read and understand what the key initiatives are. Good! But all the focus is on WHAT needs to be done, not WHY.
Aside from a reference to “worth more than the next 50 pages combined” we don’t quantify the impact on the business.
Instead, see how adding business impact to our recommendations instantly makes it more compelling:
2023 Key Priorities - Invest in winning our key rankings For us to succeed we need to focus on winning the pages that matter most. We should treat these pages like products - separate from the rest of our content. To be specific, these are our category pages and inspiration pages. The page value of a category page is more than that of the next 50 pages in the category combined Category Pages: Increase annual revenue from $2m to $4.5m Key activity #1 Key activity #2 Key activity #3 Inspiration Pages: Increase annual revenue from $1.2m to $3.4m Key activity #1 Key activity #2 Key activity #3
Even if the data is there in the document for the reader to kind of estimate the size of impact on their own - it’s important to spell it out. This is how you make your strategy compelling - everyone understands money!
Questions to ask yourself about the business case:
Are you using the language of business impact throughout the memo? I.e. are you talking about revenue and margin instead of clicks and rankings?
Have you quantified the impact of your proposed initiatives? Using a range is fine, but be sure to create a coherent estimate of impact
Beyond revenue impact, are you showing how your proposed initiatives align to overall company priorities?
#4 Evidence & Credibility
There’s something about the narrative format that naturally invites speculation and “what if” - perhaps it’s the fact that there’s no need for screenshots or mockups, perhaps it’s because we’re accustomed to writing as the medium of fantasy and imagination.
Whatever the cause - you have to curb your speculation. If you’re proposing a course of action, a strategy or an investment you should be clear-eyed and realistic.
Consider these two separate examples of “proposing a content marketing resource”
We have foundational gaps between the content we create, the audiences we are targeting, and the amplification channels we use to promote our content. Due to the fact that backlinks have primarily been a PR responsibility, this has meant we have only been focusing on a single type of website to amplify our content: the media. As a result we’ve not been focused on using further content marketing tactics to appeal to other types of websites and audiences. We would benefit from taking a content-led SEO approach, with a content marketing strategy and leveraging the SEO factors that influence links and site authority.
With the following example:
1.2. Invest in Content Marketing for RLDs Organic link building through our 175+ pricing guides have produced around 70% of our RLDs. Currently, the pages are maintained by [name] who will be leaving us soon. The permanent content marketing replacement got caught up in the hiring freeze but now needs to be addressed and this successful initiative built upon. There is also an imperative to keep existing pages up to date. The business case can be seen in this Memo from June 2022 (link).
The second example is clearer and stronger - mostly because it grounds the proposed activity in evidence. It shows that “when we previously did X, we saw Y”. Even if this evidence is anecdotal it is very powerful at convincing executives that if you receive the budget for this project it will actually have the impact you say it will.
Questions to ask yourself about the evidence:
What leaps of faith are required to believe that this strategy can come to life? How can I present evidence that we’ll overcome these?
Which data points are most subjective or weakest? How can I pair them with anecdotal stories to give them more weight?
What dependencies are required to achieve success? Have I elevated these and made this dependency clear?
Tenets are a unique opportunity
Honestly, a lot of this advice applies equally well to presentations as narrative memos! It’s the heart of good, clear strategy. But one of the unique differences between a narrative memo and a presentation is the idea of tenets.
If you’re writing a powerpoint presentation - there isn’t typically room for a section that says “here are my beliefs about the world” or “here’s my mental model for the project”.
But tenets are exactly that - they allow you to articulate a kind of north star and operating principles for the work ahead. This isn’t just a feel-good exercise, it encourages deeper alignment - not on the specific day to day projects but at a deeper level it allows you to get on the same page with the executives about why this work matters, how it should be approached etc.
For SEO work this can be incredibly important for two reasons. Firstly, SEO is a cross-functional initiative and requires other teams to execute your initiatives. So tenets allow you to educate other executives on the underlying ideas you’re building on. Secondly, there are a lot of out-dated or flat-out-wrong idea about SEO, especially with senior executives! So tenets are a good way to properly outline (and justify!) your foundational beliefs and principles for an effective SEO program.
Let’s say that we’re building out that SEO commercial content team for a publisher, we might have tenets that look like:
The following are guiding principles as we build this team: Content requires updating & maintaining. Commerce content is evergreen and largely unchanging (“best headphones” doesn’t change as a keyword). We’ll need to invest up-front for our content production knowing it’ll have a long payback cycle. Unlike editorial content we’ll need to actively maintain and update this content frequently. For the most competitive keywords competitors are updating content weekly. Commerce content requires depth. In contrast to our editorial content, we should be aiming for comprehensive content - not speed of publishing. This will require a different approach to planning, researching and publishing content. Our competitors average 3,000+ words on their comparison pages. Treat content as a product. Commerce content is directly revenue generating and has specific requirements. We will need to work more closely with product than our editorial team typically does to ensure that we are optimizing call to action buttons, integrating schema markup for things like FAQ sections and building modular page sections. Bylines & authority. Google is very explicit in their guidelines for product reviews and a key ingredient is ensuring we have strong E-EAT signals on the page: demonstrating our hands-on experience, expertise, authority and trust. We will need to review our byline to ensure we have trusted authors for our pages (while simultaneously managing a field of freelance writers and content updaters in the background).
Articulating these foundational beliefs / guiding principles allows us to get deeper alignment than a simple powerpoint would (assuming the executives read our memo…) so don’t forget to think carefully about this section.
Finally, re-write and edit!
Creating an executive-ready narrative memo is hard. Just like creating an executive-ready presentation! It requires research, iteration, feedback from various stakeholders and revision.
Having seen many executives attempt the narrative memo approach, I think this point is crucial (from the 2017 annual Amazon letter by Jeff Bezos):
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.
Ultimately, writing a memo is not an exercise in clear writing, it’s an exercise in clear strategy. If you want to go even further, don’t forget How to make an SEO strategy.
Has your organization tried narrative memos? How did it go? I’d love to hear your experience.