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How Ancient Cavemen Have Inspired Amazon’s Jeff Bezos

Jeff Bezos has a truly Amazonian approach when it comes to PowerPoint. His revolutionary, all-new way of presenting was inspired by … cavemen?

In his annual letter to employees, shareowners, the media, Wall Street and everyone whose lives are impacted in some way by Amazon – which means every darned one of us, just ask Alexa – Bezos repeated his rule that PowerPoint remains banned from all executive meetings at Amazon, the world’s largest online retailer.

Say what …?

You read that right. No templates, no pie charts, no trend lines, no bullets or sub-bullets, no headers or footers, no fretting over font types and sizes, no last-minute revisions for the poor soul who’s riding herd on visuals backstage. Nope, none of that.

Instead, Bezos requires six-page narratives from his executive team which is, essentially, a corporate version of the dreaded essay from your high school days. But why six pages instead of three, or two, or one? It’s simple. You can’t bang out a 1-pager 30 minutes before a meeting simply to keep your boss happy and create the illusion your enlightened perspective has crystalized after deep contemplation.

It takes time, research, thought and facts to put forth six high-quality pages of persuasive narrative. No winging it here, you better get started early and work hard at it. And that’s the rub. Business people are so busy, they simply don’t have time to do just that, or so they say. Well, they’d better take the time. I venture to say the brainpower you invest in truly thinking through your topic and crafting a memorable presentation is worth twice the time you spend studying your bulleted visuals on the down-stage monitors.

Hieroglyphics instead of PowerPoint …?

Bezos’ reasoning also harkens back to the days of cave-dwelling, heavy-browed, shaggy-haired men who carried clubs and grunted to communicate. (Sounds like the crowd at an Insane Clown Posse concert.) Seriously, you can learn a lot about human interaction and its application to the world of business by studying anthropology.

And Bezos has.

When humans first learned how to harness fire, they not only escaped the limitations of a boring Paleo diet, they gained the ability to cook food over heat with a side benefit of hangin’ with the boys by the campfire while a side of yak sizzled on the spit. To kill time, they told stories. Lots of them. Thus, began a more profound human interaction and the ability to teach through tales.

That’s why Bezos bans PPT and demands a six-page narrative – which is simply an academic way of saying: “Write me a story to make your point.” The first 30 minutes of any executive meeting at Amazon are held in silence to allow all in attendance to read, re-read and, if you’re an Evelyn Wood grad, re-re-read the narrative. This is all a prelude to thoughtful discussion, debate and ultimately insightful, strategy-based consensus.

(It’s also interesting that Bezos adheres to a strict “two-pizza rule”, meaning meetings should be small enough for two pizzas to feed everyone in the room. Sounds crazy but it’s hard to argue with the world’s richest man who’s helping to shape all of our futures at this very moment.)

Brains Dig Stories …

The human brain is hard-wired for the acceptance of narrative. Studies have shown that effective storytelling is far more powerful when it comes to comprehension and retention of information than bullets on an edge-blended widescreen. Does that mean visuals should go the way of popped collars and 8-track players? Hardly. The brain also responds well to imagery – the sharper, more colorful, and spectacular, the better.

Instead of laboring over 4-5 data bullets, spend that time laboring over an image or two that will amplify the point you’re making onstage, or at the head of the conference table. But only do that if you wish for your presentation to be successful.

The magical mix of memorable wordsmithing, crafty storytelling and illuminating pictures – Dr. Seuss comes to mind – is what all presenters should aspire to. (Actually, Keith Morrison of NBC’s weekly newsmagazine Dateline also comes to mind. He could draw you in and keep your rapt attention describing an oil change with his storytelling style.) Good stories delivered well activate the mind’s eye, trigger the imagination, and use all eight cylinders of the brain that, sadly, spends too much time idling or cruising on a mere four cylinders.

OK, does this mean all executive speech writers are soon headed for the soup line and an unemployment check? Again, hardly. A talented writer can work with you to pick your brain and extract great information and anecdotal gems that can be fashioned into storytelling that packs a punch. Hey, it worked for Jesus who was a big fan of teaching in parables. And Aesop has had a fabled legion of followers for centuries.

Trust me (or them), it can work for you, too.

No offense but Aristotle was probably a better storyteller than you.

Putting aside Aristotle’s notorious and controversial “takes” on evolution, Christianity and the eternal soul, you’ve got to give the dude credit for putting some brain cells behind his writings. Were he alive today, no doubt most of his works would’ve climbed to No.1 on (heh-heh) Bezos’ Amazon Best-Seller List.

Seriously, Ari was a strict adherent of the three elements of crafty storytelling – Ethos, Logos and Pathos. And considering he was an A-Lister at Greece’s earliest toga parties and hobnobbed with some of the world’s great leaders back in the day, he must’ve been taken very, very seriously. Which is precisely the spot you want to land on the next time you present to a large audience or in an executive meeting.

Let’s break those words down …

  • Ethos is character and credibility. (Nobody’s gonna pay a sack of attention to someone who doesn’t truly know what they’re talking about.)
  • Logos is logic, basically an argument that appeals to common sense, intellect and reasoning; something that makes another stop and say, “Hmm, I never thought of it that way.”
  • And Pathos is where it all comes to life — the silver bullet, the secret sauce, the deal-maker, not breaker. Pathos is passion and emotion and the ability to present your case in an inspiring and memorable way. You can’t, and won’t, knock it outta the park if you skip the emotional dimension when creating your presentation.

Some call him Bezos, others call him Bozo …

The all-dug-in, skeptical side of you may be snarking about Bezos’ “No PPT” and “Two Pizza” policies. After all, why should anyone take seriously an eccentric who also happens to be history’s first and only centibillionaire (someone whose net worth exceeds $100 billion, I had to look it up, too). He eats breakfast octopus and roasted iguana, and was once described by The New York Times’ Nellie Bowles as “brilliant but mysterious and a cold-blooded corporate titan”. Sort of Steve Jobs on steroids, you might say.

(He also doesn’t believe in early-morning meetings. Love him or hate him, we can all stand behind that policy.)

EF Hutton had nothing on Amazon’s Jeff Bezos. When Bezos speaks, people listen — even those who dislike him (witness one Donald J. Trump). But considering Bezos has built one of the world’s largest corporations (as measured by market capitalization, the total value of a company’s outstanding shares) in less than 25 years, Jeffy has Ethos out the yin-yang. He also has 112 billion reasons in his personal bank account. So, take a tip from Amazon’s top-dog.

I can only imagine hangin’ ‘round the campfire with the likes of cavemen, Aristotle, Jesus, Aesop, Dr. Seuss, EF Hutton and Jeff Bezos. I know I could learn a lot from them, seriously. Maybe you, too.

CONCLUSION

Don’t be “that guy” onstage at your next meeting or event. You know, the data-packin’, spare-no-bullets DrivelMaster of mind-numbing pie charts and performance metrics. Instead, bring your audience together around a figurative campfire and tell them stories that inform, entertain and persuade. Make it memorable!

Cheers,


 

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