Thinking in prose: a case for a memo driven meeting

Starting a meeting with a memo is an effective way to align participants and optimize for desired outputs.

Companies are full of inventive, original thinkers. Every time people come together there is a unique opportunity to unlock new thinking. The best discussions are built on the foundation of context. This unlocks participants to think critically and effectively contribute. It’s common, however, to dive into a presentation, stopping along the way for questions, comments, and tangents without first having the full picture. This derails a productive discussion. With full context, rich discussions have a chance of igniting. 

The memo is an effective tool (when done well) for setting context and arming participants with all the information they need to lean in to a productive discussion. The memo-driven meeting was made famous by Amazon and has since been adopted by many high(er) performing teams. Jeff Bezos referenced this methodology in his recent shareholder letter:

We don’t do PowerPoint (or any other slide-oriented) presentations at Amazon. Instead, we write narratively structured six-page memos. 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. Some have the clarity of angels singing. They are brilliant and thoughtful and set up the meeting for high-quality discussion.

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.

Six pages may be verbose, however, there is merit in the clarity of thought that comes from writing in prose. TED infamously requires all speakers to submit verbatim scripts months in advance – something that is contrarian in many public speaking forums. TED, like Amazon, recognizes the value in getting ideas on paper and rigorously iterating to align on a simple message for big ideas. The best communicators optimize for brevity, delivering information in as few words as necessary. I personally prefer ‘one-pagers’ that optimize for high impact in as few words as possible. Brevity is a signal of mastery.

People remember stories. A good memo is a well structured narrative, guiding the reader through a four-part story:

  1. Setting Context:  What should the reader be thinking about? What key decisions need to be made?
  2. Approaches to the Question: What are all the options?
  3. Recommendation: The proposed approach from the team authoring the memo / facilitating discussion
  4. The Request: What are the inputs needed to make a decision?

*Note: data, graphs and charts should be added to an appendix, not included on the 1-pager

The memo is meant as the starting point for the meeting, not a pre-read. This is in lieu of a presentation and should stand on its own in delivering the requisite information to seed a productive discussion.  Meetings should begin with everyone silently reading the memo, followed by the facilitator collecting initial feedback – batching and prioritizing – and moving into a discussion.

The best ideas are birthed from the collective. This method helps teams optimize for collaboration.

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