Most people love to hate meetings. They rob us of our time when we could be ticking off tasks, right? They often go on for longer than scheduled. They’re often run without much pre-work or preparation.
It’s been shown that too many meetings can slow down individual and organizational productivity. It’s clear that quality over quantity is the key, but how do we get there? And is it worth the extra work?
There is so much value to be gained in a properly formatted meeting. Of course, the format is just a piece of the puzzle, it’s also crucial to have engaged and informed attendees. Seems pretty basic, right? Find the magic formula, tell employees to be engaged, and to read the agenda. If only it was that simple.
The experience of attending a meeting where it’s difficult to participate because you don’t have context around the discussion topic is far too common. Someone is standing at the front of the room with some bullet points on a presentation slide, you’re trying to read and listen at the same time, it’s not ideal. If you do participate, it’s often to seek clarification on something, rather than to add valuable insight. I’ve had this experience too many times.
How can we be fully engaged and contributing valuable ideas when we are being exposed to an idea, concept, or process for the very first time? Our brains are simply not wired to see a bullet point on a presentation slide and then proceed to have a valuable and insightful discussion about it. We need the full story.
Whilst inefficient meetings are pretty commonplace, there are some companies thinking outside the box to solve this problem. Notably, Amazon has long adopted a unique model for internal staff meetings. There’s a lot to learn and to unpack when looking at the drivers behind their process, driven by Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos.
At Amazon, if you’re going to pull a bunch of important people into a room, you need to be well prepared.
Preparing for a meeting in most workplaces most likely includes spending an hour, or half a day piecing together presentation slides. It’s something that we’ve been doing for a while now, something visual for everyone to look at right?
The idea behind having a slide deck was to engage attendees. The intention is good, but does it work? Presentation slides are a great tool for the presenter, not for the listeners. Bezos famously hates presentation slides. So naturally, at Amazon, they are not allowed to be used in meetings.
What replaces those terribly formatted bullet points? A six-page document referred to as a memo.
With full sentences and properly punctuated paragraphs, the memo lays out the full context. It paints a picture of the meeting topic. Most importantly, it’s written with the utmost care.
In his 2017 letter to shareholders, Bezos shares how memos are not prepared in a day or two. They are written, shared with peers, edited, and re-edited, taking around a week to perfect, ensuring they “set up the meeting for high-quality discussion”. And that’s what all this comes back down to; high-quality discussion, what all meetings should enable.
- The two-pizzas rule. The idea is that, if you can’t feed everyone at the meeting with two pizzas, there are too many attendees. How many times have you had an amazingly valuable and insightful discussion with 30 other people? It’s too easy for ideas to simply get drowned out when there are too many people in the room.
- No presentation slides. A memo will be prepared ahead of time and circulated to attendees at the start of the meeting.
- Every meeting starts with attendees reading the memo. This can take anywhere between 15 to 30 minutes. Everyone will sit in silence and read. Building this time into the meeting rather than relying on busy employees to read a meeting agenda ahead of time is the only way to 100% ensure that they have all the information they need to make a valuable contribution to the discussion. There’s no excuse. Attendees are encouraged to take notes whilst reading (remember, it’s a 6-page document).
The memo creates more engaged and informed meeting attendees. Fueling critical and valuable discussions much faster because everyone already has a thorough understanding of the full context.
During a presentation with a slide deck, it’s not uncommon for questions to come up during a meeting that may be addressed in the next slide, thus wasting time. With the memo, everyone in the meeting already knows all the information that is being presented right at the start, and they can digest it and formulate their response and questions much more efficiently.
In terms of keeping the meetings to a small group of people, there are big benefits. The most obvious one being that meetings can be much more efficient and quicker with a small group, there are simply fewer opinions to be addressed. The opinions voiced will be heard and there’s more opportunity to get into deeper discussions. And of course, if there is pizza, you’re guaranteed not to miss out on a slice!
The Memo vs Presentation Slides
Is it really worth the effort to write a long-form memo? How is it different to putting together a presentation?
The main difference is the way they are written. When putting together presentation slides, the aim is to summarize the information into dot points or short sentences. Whereas a memo is authored carefully with full and punctuated sentences.
There’s a time and a place for bullet points; they are perfect for writing lists. But what they are not good for is communicating a story or an idea.
There’s a psychological term called “illusion of transparency” that perfectly explains why that is. The illusion of transparency is defined as the assumption that what is going on within our head must be obvious to others. When writing bullet points on a slide - there is more to the story, we leave big gaps. The presenter knows all of this extra information yet assumes that it can be deciphered from the bullet points. The end result is that these points are disconnected. The value of expertise or analysis is in how we connect different stories and ideas. This is very difficult to achieve and convey with a bullet point list.
Memos on the other hand are the perfect way to communicate in-depth analysis and expertise. There is more care needed when assembling an argument, or a proposal. The connections are already there, and the research is laid out.
Of course, a good memo is no good at all unless it is read through carefully. This is why those first 30 minutes of reading are 100% vital to this meeting format. There are no excuses such as being too busy to read it, the time is given within the meeting.
Once the memo is read, everyone in the room has already been informed on what a presenter with a slide-deck would spend the whole meeting presenting. But now instead of listening to a presentation, the meeting can be centered on valuable discussions. In that way, the outcome of the meeting is not simply to inform attendees through a presentation, but it is to come out of the meeting with some tangible action items that these discussions give the opportunity to identify.
As far as meetings go; it’s clear that the memo wins against the old presentation slides. At least, that's what Bezos believes.
Building a Culture of High-Standards
At the core of this approach to meetings within Amazon, an important take-away is that it is building a culture of high-standards. A culture where employees are always striving to meet and exceed the quality of the work that surrounds them.
There are so many benefits to this; building better products and services being the more obvious benefits. But, as Bezos mentions in his shareholder letter; “people are drawn to high standards”. Having a high-standards culture attracts employees that are driven by that, in turn, it means better employee retention and more successful recruiting. Who wouldn’t want to work within a team of bright, engaged people?