Joel T. Sanders
Talk Less and Think More in Meetings to Improve Outcomes
Updated: Sep 25, 2020
"Narrative structure...forces better thought and better understanding of what's more important than what, and how things are related." - Jeff Bezos
Jeff Bezos' famous 2004 email banning PowerPoint presentations at Amazon recently resurfaced in the news, as it does every few years. In place of PowerPoint, Bezos requires that meetings begin with a silent reading of a white paper written in narrative format.
Here's the famous email where Bezos explains his reasoning:
As this email reveals, Bezos's beef isn't specific to PowerPoint. His real beef is with his employees not thinking—or at least not thinking deeply enough about issues before having discussions and designing plans.
And that's the problem with meetings: there's too much talking, and not enough thinking going on.
Less Talking, More Thinking
Less discussed than Amazon's memo requirement is the fact that the first few minutes are set aside for silently reading it. Why not require people to read and prepare before the meeting? Because they don't.
More importantly, reading the memo ensures that everyone is on the same page, making the conversation more intelligent, coherent, and on-point. The bonus: silent reading is faster, and results in a deeper comprehension of the material than sitting through a presentation. So by reading the memo, there's no real lost time.
Silent reading also gives each attendee an opportunity to process what they've read without interference from others in the room. A growing body of research shows how various uses of silent, individual thinking time in meetings yields better outcomes than meetings filled with constant conversation.
It's not just meetings that can use more silence: our day-to-day work can also benefit tremendously by sitting down with pen and paper and just thinking.
Thinking Time Inside and Outside of Meetings
Business strategist Keith Cunningham, author of The Road Less Stupid, and Keys to the Vault, encourages business leaders to schedule "thinking time" to tackle complex issues. Here's an example set of questions:
"If I could devote 100% of my time to just one type of customer, who (specifically) would it be? What do they look like? What are the 5 biggest problems / pains / issues of my ideal customers? Where are they frustrated ? What can I do for customers that no one else is doing?"
While Keith's idea of "thinking time" isn't a meeting with others, its illustrative of the kind of deep thought and preparation that Bezos demands of Amazon employees, both in and out of meetings.
Writing in narrative format forces your mind to dig deeper into your ideas, instead of, as Bezos described, "glossing over them, flattening out any sense of relative importance, and ignoring the interconnectedness of ideas."
Combining this kind of deep thinking as individuals and in preparation for discussions in meetings is a superpower. Chances are, your competitors aren't doing it. Are you?
"Thinking is the hardest kind of work—which is probably the reason so few engage in it." - Henry Ford
Individuals Innovate, Groups Strategize
Individuals are more creative than groups at idea generation. Brainstorming sessions, in fact, have been shown to dumb down creative thought.
However, groups are better than individuals at making judgments, completing demonstrable tasks, and solving known problems.
Here's another way to think about it: individuals solve problems, innovate, and get things done. Groups organize members to solve certain sets of problems while ignoring (or at least de-prioritizing) others. Meetings are where groups conduct the work of organizing an organization.
How do you organize an organization? In the same way that you might organize a research paper, book, or blog post: you do it in writing. And then you get people to think about that writing. Ultimately, organizing documents into a cohesive Operational Structure can form the foundation for running an entire business.
Writing clear, organized, well-structured documents and silently reading them prior to engaging in discussion can form the foundation for constant innovation and growth.
Just ask Jeff Bezos.