Adopting ‘6-pagers’ for communication & organisation: Tufte, Bezos, ditching powerpoint, & beginning meetings in silence instead [5 min read]

“The reason powerpoint is so popular is the same reason Bezos banned it: it saves you from having to think”
Paul Graham

“As analysis becomes more causal, multivariate, comparative, evidence based, and resolution-intense, the more damaging the bullet list becomes.………For serious presentations, it will be useful to replace Powerpoint slides with paper handouts showing words, numbers, data graphics, images together. High-resolution handouts allow viewers to contextualise, compare, narrate, and recast evidence. In contrast, data-thin, forgetful displays tend to make audiences ignorant. and passive, and also to diminish the credibility of the present…….. Making this transition in large organizations requires a straightforward executive order: From now on your presentation software is microsoft word, not powerpoint get used to it.”
Edward Tufte

This covers the six pager method to move organisations beyond using powerpoint. Amazon uses this to ‘evaluate 10 times as much information as the typical company does in a similar time frame’ (p18, ‘working backwards’).

I’m interested in it not only because I dislike powerpoint, but because I’ve been trying to work out a better way to align disparate groups of people in the job I currently do, and also am looking for ‘tried and tested’ methods as I don’t have time to experiment. Here I’ll collect some high level thoughts on it, and link together some resources that people might find useful if they want to give it a try.

The is based on two sources (all quotes are from working backwards, which I will blog more on later). The first is ‘working backwards: insights, stories, and secrets from inside amazon’ by two former employees, Colin Bryar and Bill Carr. It also references an essay by Tufte which is linked below also.


Tufte & Amazon: The ‘powerpoint style’ is not conducive to meetings

Hour long amazon meetings instead begin in silence. 20 minutes of silence. Instead of talking, they read the ‘6 pager’, a narrative document that is a key, maybe the most key, communication and discussion tool at the company. This is a ‘narrative information multiplier’ as Bryar and Carr describe it.

6 pagers came about in Amazon due to dissasitification with powerpoint presentations – Amazon found they were ineffective communications mediums, and ineffective meeting mediums. They described even deep dives into a topic using powerpoint as ‘frustrating, inefficient, and error prone.’ The slides needed a narrator, so sharing them afterward is less effective. If you get lost in one part whilst listening, you can’t catch up. People are forced to interrupt in a way that throws off the sequence of the speaker, as slides are only up momentarily. Few are good at using it, and even if they are the format is simplistic, missing nuance, preventing complex communication of ideas. Its like a succession of movie still frames, yet without clear connection between them. It isn’t good for exploring complex ideas as a group or conveying complex information. Powerpoint is bullet points plus images and little more. If you are unconvinced, I suggest reading this: Wired – Powerpoint is Evil.

They often discussed how to improve it, then in 2004 read Ed Tufte’s anti-powerpoint essay, ‘The cognitive style of powerpoint: pitching out corrupts within’.

Bryar quotes a single sentence from Tufte as capturing the problem Amazon faced: “As analysis becomes more causal, multivariate, comparative, evidence based, and resolution-intense, the more damaging the bullet list becomes.”

Tufte proposed a solution: “For serious presentations, it will be useful to replace Powerpoint slides with paper handouts showing words, numbers, data graphics, images together. High-resolution handouts allow viewers to contextualise, compare, narrate, and recast evidence. In contrast, data-thin, forgetful displays tend to make audiences ignorant. and passive, and also to diminish the credibility of the present…….. Making this transition in large organizations requires a straightforward executive order: From now on your presentation software is microsoft word, not powerpoint get used to it.”

Big Amazon meeting change in 2004: they banned powerpoint, moved to the ‘6-pager’

Bezos liked Tufte’s solution. So Bezos banned powerpoint at Amazon. This led to a predictable backlash within Amazon: powerpoint is not just habit but easier for a wide range of reasons. But it was backed by Bezos so was forced through.

Bezos wrote this in a 2004 email pushing back:

Amazon eventually settled through experimentation on a 6-pager format, optimised for a meeting length of an hour. This was because it takes roughly 3 minutes for one page, and a prior powerpoint presentation typically took 20 minutes followed by 40 minutes of feedback & discussion. The length of the ‘6 pager’ therefore is varied to meeting length. For a 30 minute meeting, you could do a 3 pager, etc etc. A ten minute meeting would be a one pager.

To me this timing issue is an important point: the concept here is partly that the unit of written organisation/communication should also be aligned to that which can be discussed in a meeting within the organisation. This is rarely if ever the case with powerpoint, where presentations invariably involve skipping slides, rushing, ending early etc with little consideration of how the presentation will actually be digested and discussed.

6 pagers can vary widely in composition style depending on whether they are covering an idea, review, a decision etc. The authors of ‘working backwards’ provide an example, a 6 pager about 6 pagers, which I copied into the appendix below. If you’re interested in adopting this, I recommend reading it.

Example headings within a 6 pager for an Amazon quarterly business review could be:
Introduction
Tenets
Accomplishments
Misses
Proposals for next period
Headcount
P&L
FAQ
Appendices (including graphs, spreadsheets, mock ups, tables etc).

In the resource sections below you can find an example of a 6 pager, which is a ‘6 pager on 6 pagers’, which gives more information on how these documents are composed.

What happens next when people have read the 6 pager?

A key guide at amazon is that a 6 pager should anticipate and reflect alternative points of view and objections. These can be dealt with in a Q&A, as in the appendix doc, and I’ll cover this in part in a different blog. This in turn allows the next phase of the 6 pager process.

The meetings themselves, following the 20 minute read, have a particular routine to them. From Amazon’s experience, the authors strongly warn against having the speaker run through the 6 pager once it has been read. This defeats the point, wastes time, and repeats many of the flaws of powerpoint.

Instead, they advise trying one of two strategies to discuss the document, then tweaking to your circumstance:
Discussion approach 1: High level comments by all, then work through the document line-by-line together.
Discussion approach 2: Go round the group in a circle each giving detailed feedback on the document.

They then move to a discussion, which its imperative to write down and keep a record of. I find this helps grow the ‘paper trail’ relatively easily in a nonbureaucratic way, and drives progress to the next meeting such that the 6 pager begins to include follow up actions, and grows into the next is pager.

I like this section re Bezos:

Adopting this for 6 months as an experiment

I’m going to adopt this method for the various projects I work on. One can imagine a process. A 6-pager spins off more 6-pagers, collectively working toward a much longer, finished document, with 6-pagers as building blocks.

II’ll add a slight experimental quirk to begin with: I’ll add a one page summary to the front of every document. Before I started my current job, an old Whitehall veteran said to me ‘no one reads anything longer than a page in Whitehall’. Not only will it act as a quick summary for readers without time, it will also serve as a useful index for picking up the project again quickly in the future, without having to re-read the entire document.

In essence, I can imagine ‘thinking in 6 pagers’ as a unit of planning out weeks and projects.

A couple other resources explaining 6 pagers, and the example ‘6 pager on 6 pagers’ from amazon employees:

Here is an online doc that might be of use, providing a summary of 6 pagers: https://writingcooperative.com/the-anatomy-of-an-amazon-6-pager-fc79f31a41c9

and another, a very short summary of the 6 pager concept: https://mad.co/insights/the-mad-six-pager/

Here is an example 6 pager from ‘Working backwards’ by two ex amazon employees – a ‘6 pager on 6 pagers’:

Earlier Versions of this blog post

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