You’ve been there too-—the really, truly awful PowerPoint presentation that makes you want to run screaming from the room.
More than a decade ago, it was estimated that 30 million PowerPoint presentations were given each day—the number must be much higher today. Just think of how many millions of hours are spent every day sitting through truly terrible PowerPoint presentations.
So it’s noteworthy that Amazon founder—and new Washington Post owner—Jeff Bezos’ proscribes PowerPoint presentations at Amazon.
Bezos instead requires that employees compose 6-page narrative memos, and he starts meetings with quiet reading periods—“study halls”—in which everyone reads the memo from beginning to end.
So the company that is devoted to helping customers do things quick-quick-quick—“1-click ordering,” same-day delivery, the instant download—creates an environment where employees take the time to write and think slowly.
If you know you must write six pages—and that others will publicly read and discuss it—you’ll take the time to do it as well as you can.
Composing six well-crafted pages requires thought—not just a list of topics and disjointed points but the development of an argument. As Bezos put it in a 2012 interview:
When you have to write your ideas out in complete sentences and complete paragraphs, it forces a deeper clarity of thinking.
In contrast, Bezos notes, with too many PowerPoint presentations,
You get very little information, you get bullet points. This is easy for the presenter, but difficult for the audience.
(Bezos’ description of the Amazon memo process and critique of PowerPoint starts around 5:46)
PowerPoint makes it easy to create the illusion of a coherent argument, and it allows people to indulge their temptation to avoid asking themselves if they really have a good argument to make. As a former PowerPoint employee described:
Now we’ve got highly paid people sitting there formatting slides—spending hours formatting slides—because it’s more fun to do that than concentrate on what you’re going to say. . . . Millions of executives around the world are sitting there going, “Arial? Times Roman? Twenty-four point? Eighteen point?”
When you have to put together a 6-page memo that will be closely read, all of a sudden you’ve got more important things to think about than Arial vs. Times Roman.
The importance of writing, Bezos explains, is why tablets won’t entirely replace traditional computers—people still need keyboards for writing (starting at 22:46 in the interview).
The importance of writing in Amazon’s success is a clue about why so many employers find that new college graduates aren’t well prepared to be contributors in their workplaces. A major, recent study found that half of the college students surveyed were not required to write more than 20 pages in any course in a typical semester. Writing is like any other learned skill—if you don’t practice it, you can’t do it very well. If college students don’t write much, they won’t be ready to contribute—even in the majority of workplaces where new graduates can hide fuzzy thinking in a PowerPoint presentation.