Writing, Meeting, and Thinking

by Dave Michels

I came across three recent posts that started and finished with Amazon. The topic is the importance of reading and writing – something many are loathe to do.

I read and write a lot. I read 1-3 books a month, and write here, at NoJitter, and BCStrategies, Plus, publish research notes, reports, and whitepapers. That’s what I do, but most people have jobs that don’t involve so much writing. Writing, I find, forces me to organize my thoughts.  

Three Posts

The first post started as a series of tweets by @SteveSI (Steven Sinofsky) and subsequently published as a post. He believes ‘writing is thinking,’ and is surprised by “the amount of pushback” to writing at various companies. He says people think its not agile. He retorts that “You can’t have plans, especially shared plans, without writing.”

He makes his point nicely in this tweet:

Writing is super hard. It takes more time to write than it does to talk. It also takes more time to write a page of text than a single slide. Let’s look at one example, the paragraph on handstands from Jeff Bezos’ annual letter.

The tweet included the image of this excerpt:

The second post came from Brad Feld sharing some thoughts on Comey’s new Book “A Higher Loyalty.” The salient point was that people seem to have lots of opinions on this book (as well as Brotopia) even though they haven’t read the book.

I’m going to use the reaction people had to Emily Chang’s book Brotopia: Breaking Up the Boys’ Club of Silicon Valley to frame my view of Comey’s book. When I wrote the post Book: Brotopia: Breaking Up the Boys’ Club of Silicon Valley I was simply writing about my reactions and thoughts after reading the book. Over the few weeks following my post, I had several conversations with men, all who I respect, about the book. In most of these conversations, I was surprised that they had a different, and generally negative, reaction to the book from me. When I pressed on why they had the reaction they had, it always came back to an excerpt that was published before the book was released and the ensuing controversy around the event and whether or not it happened as Emily portrayed it in the book. When I asked the question, “Did you read the book or just the excerpt” each one answered some version of “I’ve only read the excerpt.”

The remarkable thing about some of the criticism about Comey and his book was that it occurred before the book was released. The attacks – both substantive and ad-hominem, have been amplified to a volume of 11.

The third post relates to a recent Jeff Bezos interview where he explained the unique meeting culture at Amazon. He said that Amazon doesn’t use PowerPoint. Instead, the first part of meetings involves all participants reading a memo that frames the purpose and issues of the meeting. He said that takes about the first 20-30 minutes of any meeting.

“When you have to write your ideas out in complete sentences, complete paragraphs it forces a deeper clarity,” Bezos told Conor Neill, a business coach at IESE Business School in 2012. “If you have a traditional PowerPoint presentation, executives interrupt. If you read the whole six-page memo, on page two you have a question but on page four that question is answered.”

Brad Porter, Amazon’s robotics lead, believes six-page memos make Amazon’s meetings “magical.”

The memo approach is certainly unusual. I mistakenly assumed that reading the memo as a group was an expensive waste of time. That meeting attendees should just come prepared so the meeting could be more production.


However, if the memo is to be read regardless, it doesn’t take more time to do it as a group.  Bezos explains that managers are so busy that they tend to fake-read memos, and act like they read it. So, if managers are supposed to take time, why not schedule it? If the participants fake-read it, arguably the meeting is even more expensive.

I write a lot about enterprise communications and collaboration, but it hadn’t really occurred to me how important written communications are in ideation, communications, and collaboration. It’s a topic that deserves more attention.  We spend way too much time focused on making meetings more seamless, and not enough on making them more meaningful, productive, or magical. 

No, this has nothing to do with messaging vs. email. Both support shared content. The problem is too much email and messaging and not enough thinking. We waste too much time processing crap, like unnecessary reply-alls to get any writing (and thinking) done.

I could not ignore the fact that I saw all three of these the same week.