Amazon Employees Need Writing Skills: Should MBA Programs Require Writing Courses?

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MBA applicants and students who don’t think writing skills are essential to their career success might want to re-evaluate that opinion, in view of a surprising recent report by CNBC.

Incredibly, Amazon, the business that hires more MBAs each year than any other employer around the world—about double the number hired by runner-up McKinsey & Company—forbids presentations. What’s more, that Seattle firm even precludes the use of its neighbor Microsoft’s charts-and-graphs software, PowerPoint, during meetings as well.

Amazon is home to the chief executive that the Yale School of Management’s Dean Jeffrey Sonnenfeld selected as his “CEO of the Decade,” Jeff Bezos. But America’s biggest retailer isn’t the only mega-company with such a policy. Both billion-dollar firms run by beloved Silicon Valley figure Jack Dorsey—Twitter and Stripe—also focus most meetings on discussions of memos.

The reasons are similar at all three companies, and relate to better efficiency and productivity. But the implications for business schools’ curricula—and on the skills of graduates—may be substantial.

Bezos: “The Smartest Thing We Ever Did”

At firms like these, meetings don’t start with a lecture by a speaker next to colorful “data dump” slide deck images of charts and graphs projected upon a screen. Rather, at places like Amazon, meetings typically begin—shockingly enough—with periods of silent reading and reflection lasting as long as 30 minutes.

During this time, participants study a structured proposal memorandum at least six pages long drafted by a team. Only then does the group engage in a discussion that evaluates the merits of the memo’s plan.

Bezos told CNBC that “many, many years ago, we outlawed PowerPoint presentations at Amazon, and it’s probably the smartest thing we ever did.” In this interview video recorded live in 2018, here’s how he explained how Amazon reinvented meetings:

No PowerPoints are used inside of Amazon (applause).

When we hire a new executive from the outside—and this is the weirdest meeting culture you will ever encounter—new executives have a little bit of, you know, “culture shock” at their first Amazon meeting.

Because what we do is somebody, for the meeting, has prepared a six-page memo, a narratively structured memo that has got, you know, real sentences, and topic sentences, and verbs and nouns—not just bullet points. And it’s supposed to create the context for what will then be a good discussion.

And then we read those memos silently in the meeting. So it’s like a study hall. And we do that—everybody sits around the table, and we read silently for usually about half an hour, or however long it takes us to read the document.

And then we discuss it. And it’s so much better than the typical PowerPoint presentation, and for so many reasons. I could talk about this for all of the time we have left. So I definitely recommend the memo over the PowerPoint.

The reason we read them in the room, by the way, is because just like, you know, high school kids, executives will bluff their way through the meeting as if they’ve read the memo. Because we’re busy, and so you’ve got to actually carve out the time for the memo to get read. And that’s what the first half-hour of the meeting is for—and then everybody’s actually read the memo. They’re not just pretending to have read the memo…

A junior executive comes in, they put a huge amount of effort into developing a PowerPoint presentation, they put the third slide up, and the most senior executive in the room has already interrupted them, thrown them off their game, asking questions about what is going to be presented in slide six. But if they would just stay quiet for a moment…

It turns out that the policy at Amazon dates back more than 16 years, to 2004. At that time, Bezos explained the policy in this email message excerpt:

The reason writing a good 4-page memo is harder than “writing” a 20-page PowerPoint is because the narrative structure of a good memo forces better thought and better understanding of what’s more important than what, and how things are related.

PowerPoint-style presentations somehow give permission to gloss over ideas, flatten out any sense of relative importance, and ignore the interconnectedness of ideas.

Twitter’s Dorsey: A Similar Approach

At Twitter and Stripe, Jack Dorsey’s approach differs slightly from Amazon’s technique. During the silent reading period, Dorsey instead encourages meeting participants to write shared comments into their memos using the Google Docs platform. In 2018, he tweeted:

Most of my meetings are now Google doc-based, starting with 10 minutes of reading and commenting directly in the doc. This practice makes time for everyone to get on the same page, allows us to work from many locations, and gets to truth/critical thinking faster.

Employers’ Perennial Complaint

The emphasis on writing at influential employers like Amazon—and the potential impact of a lack of these skills on advancement—calls for a rethinking of the diminished emphasis writing instruction has assumed during recent years at most business schools.

These days, most top MBA programs don’t require courses in writing. That’s in part because there isn’t much time available within their crammed curricula. It’s also because business schools assume that students learned how to write well during their undergraduate work.

But assuming that many MBA students learned good writing while undergraduates may be unrealistic—and especially so among those with strong quantitative backgrounds in an era where mastery of “big data” earns respect.

Moreover, Dr. Sharon Washington, a former executive director of the Berkeley, California-based National Writing Project, said that undergraduate programs in the United States have de-emphasized writing instruction. She told the Wall Street Journal, “The good news about texting is that at least people are writing more.”

And although business school professors may assign papers—sometimes in lieu of examinations—that indirectly help develop writing skills, MBA students don’t receive much in the way of required training that would help them draft the kinds of structured project memos described by Bezos.

Employers have consistently complained about MBA graduates’ lack of writing skills for many years. Three senior Booz Allen Hamilton executives wrote in 2003:

Companies demand leaders who can powerfully articulate ideas, orally and in writing, to motivate and guide their people. But schools tend to train people to simply assert their ideas; they don’t sensitize them to the critical value of being an excellent communicator.

Eight years later, the Wall Street Journal asked Why Can’t MBA Students Write?, where reporter Diana Middleton explained:

While MBA students’ quantitative skills are prized by employers, their writing and presentation skills have been a perennial complaint… The University of Rochester’s Simon Graduate School of Business hired two writing coaches last fall after employers complained about graduates’ writing skills, says Dean Mark Zupan.

Writing coaches also work with students at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business. Moreover, the school even offers a course called Winning Writing taught by Professor Glenn Kramon, an assistant managing editor at the New York Times who has supervised many Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists.

Considering the importance of writing abilities among top employing companies of MBAs such as Amazon, perhaps other business schools should devote more time to ensuring their students know how to express themselves effectively.

Douglas Mark
Douglas Mark
Writer

While a partner in a San Francisco marketing and design firm, for over 20 years Douglas Mark wrote online and print content for the world’s biggest brands, including United Airlines, Union Bank, Ziff Davis, Sebastiani, and AT&T. Since his first magazine article appeared in MacUser in 1995, he’s also written on finance and graduate business education in addition to mobile online devices, apps, and technology. Doug graduated in the top 1 percent of his class with a business administration degree from the University of Illinois and studied computer science at Stanford University.