“The reason writing a ‘good’ four 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.” — Jeff Bezos.
Once upon a time, I worked for a CEO (who shall remain nameless) who gave me a piece of advice that I’ve been noodling over for years now. I had just finished making a presentation to him and the rest of the executive team on a plan to attack a new market: a strategic adjacency that we needed to win if we wanted to be successful as a software company in the long run.
At a one-on-one meeting right after the presentation, he commended me on the thoroughness of the presentation and agreed with the strategy I’d proposed. He then went on to complain about my presentation style, explaining that I went into far too much detail, that I should “dumb it down” for him (his words) as he didn’t have the time to drill into so much minutiae; he needed to hear only “a few top level bullet points” so he could concentrate on making strategic decisions. He trusted me to know the topic in depth but I was taking up too much time and confusing him by offering so many details.
I walked away thinking that I needed to work on my presentation style, kicking myself for wallowing in the details. Over the years, I’ve thought about that conversation many times. Ultimately, I came to the conclusion that we were both wrong.
He was wrong to not care about the details, as evidenced by several expensive and embarrassing mistakes he made in later years. And I was wrong because I’d fallen victim to the PowerPoint culture so prevalent in business these days. By presenting slides and trying to talk through the details in the meeting, I’d confused the audience. There’s an impedance mismatch between PowerPoint and details that cannot be easily overcome by mere mortals like me.
Eventually I stopped using PowerPoint altogether in favor of writing documents to communicate my ideas. It’s so easy to gloss over the details and jump to conclusions in pretty-looking slides. It’s only when you write out the logic behind your reasoning in full sentences and paragraphs that you are forced to think through the implications.
I found that spending the time to write coherent sentences, instead of abbreviated bullet points, forced me to think more objectively and to identify fallacies in my own thinking more readily. It also forced me to present the logic in a coherent manner and helped the reader follow that logic more easily. And it had the added benefit that it could be sent to a broader audience without me having to tag along and explain the story behind the bullets.
Even though I’ve never worked at Amazon, I give a lot of credit to Jeff Bezos for requiring “six page memos” for all strategy meetings. Doing so forces you to think through details and to do so in a more coherent manner.
You have to care about the details, you have to not just understand but also wallow in the details — because details matter. That’s the only way you ever get to understand why things happen the way they do, the only way you get to see patterns over time. By glossing over the details, you often end up making assumptions that are not true, jumping to conclusions that are invalid when studied more carefully. And guess what: PowerPoint bullets do exactly that, they encourage both the presenter and the audience to gloss over details.
Of course, the trick is to not get lost in the weeds, to see (and explain) the big picture as well as the details. But I claim that’s easier to do with a written document than trying to do the opposite (covering details in slides).
Writing documents instead of PowerPoint slides doesn’t guarantee that you’ll have better ideas. It does, however, guarantee that you’ll catch some more of your own bad ideas before it’s too late.
Just say “No!” to slides.