Adopting ‘6-pagers’ for communication & organisation: Tufte, Bezos, ditching powerpoint, & beginning meetings in silence instead [5 min read] – Updated 28th July

Tufte: “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.”

This covers a practice to move organisations beyond using powerpoint, which Amazon uses 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. Keeping large groups of people aligned in complex organisations where things can change quickly is an interesting challenge.

I like the sound of this approach so will be trying it. This is partly a summary for me, partly to share with team members.

Table of Contents

Its based on two sources (all quotes are from working backwards, which I will blog more on later).

Chapter 4 of this book, ‘Communicating’

And Tufte’s essay referenced within.

From Tufte – Original image from a soviet military parade

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

Amazon meetings 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 are 1/2 of the amazon narrative system – I’ll cover the PR/FAQ one later (the ‘bezos doc’). 6 pagers are prepared for every meeting.

6 pagers came about in Amazon due to dissasitification with powerpoint presentations.

I’ve long disliked powerpoint presentations. if you get lost in one part, 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. If you like powerpoint, stop reading.

Jeff Bezos and Colin Bryar found similar to my experience at Amazon, describing even deep dives into a topic using powerpoint as ‘frustrating, inefficient, and error prone.’ 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’.

Here is Tufte’s essay for those interested (from here: https://www.inf.ed.ac.uk/teaching/courses/pi/2016_2017/phil/tufte-powerpoint.pdf)

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 they 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:

They eventually settled through experimentation on a 6-pager format, optimised for a meeting length of an hour. This is 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. For a 30 minute meeting, you could imagine doing a 3 pager, etc etc.

Toe methis timing issue is an important point: the concept here, as i see it, 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.

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.

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.

Example headings within a 6 pager for an Amazon quarterly business review could be:
Introduxtion
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 more examples of 6 pagers, and additional guidance.

What happens next when people have read the 6 pager?

The meetings themselves, following the 20 minute read, should also have a certain 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 one of two strategies, or your teams own approach:
1) High level comments by al, then work through the docmument line-byline together.
2) go round the group in a circle each giving feedback on the document.

They then move to a discussion, which its imperative to write down and keep a record of!

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 unit of planning out weeks and projects.

I’ll update this blog in 6 months and report back on how I’ve found it.

A couple resources

Here is an online doc that might be of use: 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/

Appendix -Bryar and Carr’s ‘6 pager on 6 pagers’ document

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