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Lessons from Amazon: How to Make Staff Meetings and Internal Communications More Effective

Amazon internal communications lessonsAmazon may owe at least part of its success to its internal communications practices. Corporate communications teams could glean some lessons from the ecommerce giant, in particular, Amazon’s unusual method of running meetings.

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos explained his simple rules for corporate communications in a letter to shareholders and an interview at the George W. Bush Presidential Center’s Forum on Leadership.

The two-pizza rule. Large groups tend to lead to long, rambling discussions and greater difficulty reaching conclusions, a common problem with meetings. Bezos keeps groups manageable by limiting the number of people at meetings to no more than can be fed by two pizzas.

The six-page memo. Amazon has banned PowerPoints and other slide presentations. Instead, its personnel create a six-page memo – narratives with real sentences — not just bullet points. The narrative memos work well because our brains process good storytelling much better than hard data, Bezos says. The memos give authors the chance to fully communicate the thoughts behind their ideas and give meeting participants the chance to thoroughly understand concepts.

Naturally, the quality of memos varies greatly. “The great memos are written and rewritten, 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,” Bezos writes in a letter to shareholders.

Producing memos is a team effort. It’s important that someone on the team have strong writing skills. However, in Bezo’s view, that person doesn’t need to be a top executive.

“The football coach doesn’t need to be able to throw, and a film director doesn’t need to be able to act,” he states. “But they both do need to recognize high standards for those things and teach realistic expectations on scope.”

Start with silence. Meetings start with everyone reading the memo in silence. Bezos compares the atmosphere to a study hall. Busy executives may fail to read materials and bluff their way through meetings, acting if they read background information. Unprepared meeting participants waste time asking questions answered in previous messages.

“This is the weirdest meeting culture you will ever encounter,” he says. “New executives have a little culture shock.”

But the in-meeting memo-reading step assures that attendees are informed and prepared. Amazon executives have no excuse for not being abreast of the meeting topic or issue.

“I’ve used this method in my own meetings, and I can vouch for its effectiveness,” writes Justin Bariso, an author and consultant, in Inc. “As the meeting moderator, you can be sure that everyone is starting off with a solid foundation and that they’re all on the same page.” Both figuratively and literally.

The method gives people time to concentrate and understand issues at a deep level, an in-depth understanding that leads to deeper discoveries.

Writing Prompts Thinking. Reading Prompts Understanding

While PowerPoints may be easier to create, writing prompts us to think. And people process information better through reading rather than viewing a presentation. “Asking meeting attendees to listen to a presentation while absorbing the information presented on a PowerPoint slide could be too much for our cognitive load,” writes Emily Alford in ClickZ.

Alford offers these tips for marketers on writing meeting memos and most other business documents:

Don’t fear your first draft. Nothing is perfect on the first try. Get your ideas down on paper without worrying too much about cohesion, structure, or even grammar.

Find the narrative. Determine the insights and experiences and their common theme. Imagine your narrative as a string, tying all the elements of your first draft together.

Tell a story. Studies show that beginning writers use the visual part of their brains while writing, but professional writers use their speech centers. That’s because the best writers know that humans respond to stories.

“Most marketers understand the power of persuasive writing — in emails, social media campaigns, and web copy,” she states. “However, many of us overlook the power of the written word when it comes to developing our own ideas.”

Amazon Employee Communications Lessons

Snackable content is the key for Amazon’s employee communications, says Kristin Graham, head of employee communications for Amazon Web Services.

Your message has seven seconds to capture employees’ attention, Graham says. They want to instantly know if the message is relevant to them. If it’s not, they won’t pay attention.

Studies show that about half the people stop reading after 111 words. They just can’t consume anymore. “We must continue to challenge ourselves to be snackable — bite-sized pieces,” Graham says.

Digital communications instead of print often works better, especially for millennials. Images, live video and fast-moving presentations can keep their attention while relaying information. Graham suggests PechaKucha 20×20, which shows 20 images for 20 seconds each for a presentation six minutes long.

Bottom Line: Organizations can improve results by replicating how Amazon runs its meetings. Preparing well-written narratives and designating time to read them creates the foundation for in-depth understand of issues the company faces. Because writing is paramount in Amazon’s method, communications professionals have a key role to play.