Why Jeff Bezos cares so much about writing

By Greg Dardis / Guest Column

I try to learn from the best minds, and Jeff Bezos, the 54-year-old founder of Amazon, certainly qualifies.

In his latest letter to shareholders, Bezos shared a business practice that may surprise you. As a cutting-edge tech company, you might ex­pect this tip to relate to innovation: how to con­tinually adapt, to solve problems quickly and to respond to customers promptly. Amazon ranks high for customer satisfaction because of this proven ability. (If you’ve ever called its custom­er service line, you’ve likely been impressed by the ease with which the Amazon representative solves your problem – a far cry from most cus­tomer-service calls.)

But the practice Bezos emphasized was de­cidedly low-tech. It didn’t involve hastening a process – in fact, it was all about taking your time on it.

Bezos preached about writing. He described it as an engine for clearer thinking and high­er-quality discussion among employees.

The CEO puts great stock in the company’s use of “narratively structured six-page mem­os.” The act of writing one is a vital exercise, Bezos believes.

The thing about good writing is you can’t fake it. If you don’t understand the topic, it will be painfully obvious to the reader. Sometimes you have to go back and fully learn the topic, asking new questions that arose when you were trying to write – the questions you should’ve asked the first time around when you were afraid to look foolish.

Writing sparks your thinking and clarifies it. It forces you to order your thought process, helping reveal the priorities of a project and its secondary points.

Amazon employees are coached on the writ­ing process. A top-notch six-page memo cannot be written in a few hours or even a day, Bezos tells them. “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.”

That process – of writing it out, of editing, of seeing how your colleagues refine the text, of reviewing it later with fresh eyes – is packed with learning.

But the learning does not stop there. That’s just where it begins.

Next, according to Amazon policy, is the time to present the memo. Each meeting begins with one, and the group reads it silently to really absorb it, making for “a kind of study hall,” as Bezos puts it. It sets the meeting up for robust, productive conversation. It frames the gathering to ensure that colleagues share meaningful input and ask the right questions – the kind that lead to the next breakthrough or, just as importantly, reveal an important blind spot.

Bezos’ thoughts on writing resonate with me. It’s why I’m so proud of our Business Writing program, which grows more popular each year – a much-needed course in an era of texting and tweeting. In it, we teach best prac­tices for various writing projects and for email. We coach our clients on how to write concise, focused content. And we unveil an easy five-step writing process that saves considerable editing time.

Half way through the program, I often sense a kind of catharsis under way, wiping away the residual fear and loathing instilled by stern high-school English teachers wielding red pens and convincing kids they can’t write.

Anyone can write! With practice, you’ll get better and better – and eventually you could be writing the kind of first-rate memos that, as Bezos puts it, “have the clarity of angels singing.”

In the process, you might even enjoy it. Most of all, you’ll experience the important benefits that Bezos touts, meaning everyone on your team wins.

Greg Dardis is the CEO of Dardis Communications, based in Coralville. For more information, visit www.dardiscommunications.com.