Write more. Meet less. Reflections on the memo culture.

Zoom is great. Meeting on Zoom for 5 hours a day, not so much. Writing can help — especially if your company adopts a writing-centric “memo culture.”

The value of a memo culture

Consider two companies that have a memo culture, Amazon and Netflix.

At Amazon, if you’re having a meeting, you have to write a memo first. The attendees spend the first ten minutes reading the memo. As Jeff Bezos explains:

“The reason writing a ‘good’ four 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.”

“If we don’t [make everyone read the memo first] the executives, like high school kids, will try to bluff their way through a meeting,” Bezos said at a 2018 Forum on Leadership. “[The memo is] supposed to create the context for what will then be a good discussion.”

Netflix also has a memo culture; if you want to get a decision or share data, you write a memo. As they say in their culture document:

We share documents internally broadly and systematically. Nearly every document is fully open for anyone to read and comment on, and everything is cross-linked. Memos on . . . every strategy decision, on every competitor, and on every product feature test are open for all employees to read. 

More docs mean fewer meetings

Which would you rather do, read a five-page document or attend a one-hour meeting?

It sure would be easier to read the document, don’t you think?

No one liked meetings before. Now that the meetings are on Zoom, they’re even harder.

So imagine a process that works like this:

  1. You need to make a decision and get buy-in, collaboration, or approval.
  2. You write a short document — a memo — explaining what you want to do.
  3. You share the document, and others comment on it. Ideally, this could happen in an environment like Google Docs or Slack, where people can see each other’s comments, rather than as a tedious chain of emails comments.
  4. You acknowledge their comments and update your memo based on them.
  5. Everybody gets to work.

You will still need to meet. Meetings can stimulate a rapid give and take of ideas. They’re good for brainstorms. They let you see others’ body language; they allow you to use non-verbal cues and share your enthusiasm.

But if you had to write things down first, there could be fewer, shorter meetings. Communicating in writing — and commenting on what’s written — can happen asynchronously. And when we’re balancing home life, child care, and work, that’s a lot better way to do things than meeting all.

There’s a rub. Everyone must read what you write. That’s a cultural issue, but one that any company, division, or department can enforce if it wants to make a change.

Learn to write better

What does this mean?

It means that the best, clearest, briefest, most persuasive writers will succeed. The ones who can use data best will win. The writers that impress others with the clarity of their arguments will prevail.

That could be you.

Write without bullshit. It will boost your career and impress your colleagues. Especially now.

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  1. Great concept. Poor writers and procrastinators will avoid this tactic, though. They’d rather gobble up people’s time with blah-blah-blah rather than synthesize the concept in writing.

  2. “Everyone must read what you write. That’s a cultural issue” – Right, but there is something missing…

    Ultimately it is a leadership issue. It is up to the company leaders to live by this and expect and enforce it.

    Overall, this approach makes sense for many meetings.