Words matter at Amazon. They are the sentinels who ensure that a culture with a relentless push for clarity, indeed remains clear and specific. When you want to convince anyone of anything, at Amazon, you write a narrative (an up-to-six-pages-long essay.) In meetings, people spend the first few minutes in complete silence to read these narratives. PowerPoint slides are not allowed. Amazonians believe that when making an argument, bullet-points are hand-wavy and insufficient, bordering on wasteful. (PowerPoint is usually OK when communicating with customers or with the rest of the world.)

Words Matter: Amazon's Addiction to Clarity











The Power of Words

Words are the only medium that, in Amazon's view, can adequately force the healthy conflict required to make high-quality/high-velocity decisions. This is the case because words are specific, measurable, and bound in time. Clear words shed a beam of light on issues and remove places you could hide to avoid ownership or accountability. Persistence is another advantage that words and, by extension, the written human language have. A presentation also has words, but they are often irrelevant because they lack 100% clear context. A presentation requires a presenter and therefore is open to misinterpretation when left on its own. In contrast, you can email a clearly written narrative to others who would understand your point after reading.

There is a reason why the Declaration of Independence or the Magna Carta were not PowerPoint presentations. They were written documents, which (though open to differing interpretations, at times) have captured the meaning of their creators and passed it on to other humans. In that capacity, words serve as AI, which decouples the message from the messenger and scales the message to reach countless recipients without dilution. You can't do that with bullet-points.

So, "what do clear Amazon words look like?" you might ask. Look no further than Amazon's mission statement: "to be Earth's most customer-centric company." Words matter a lot there. Notice how the mission statement doesn't say: "the world's most customer-centric company," or "the planet's most customer-centric company." Why is that? You guessed it: because these qualifiers aren't specific enough. There are definitely multiple planets in the Milky Way Galaxy. And there are likely other worlds in the Universe. There is only one Earth. Therefore, the only qualifier that would suffice is "Earth's." This may seem like a nit, but it's incredibly representative of Amazon's culture, at large.

Unless you can Think of Better ones

Another strength that words have is that they are editable. Amazon constantly revises its thinking. Words are a natural conduit to enable this type of flexibility. Often, at the end of a sentence in Amazon's narratives, you would see the qualifier "unless you can think of better ones." For example, "these are our top three priorities for the rest of 2018 unless you can think of better ones." What this means is that Amazon encourages its people to challenge how things are done and invent new ways to do things.

I have an example, from one of the New Hire Orientation sessions I facilitated, that illustrates the above behavior. During my training, I was teaching the new Amazonians how words mattered and how Amazon's mission statement illustrated that. And I was encouraging them to constantly challenge how things were done. Later, I had moved to another topic, discussing Amazon's financials. I was talking about Amazon's worldwide revenue when one of the new hires interrupted me with: "If world is not a clear enough qualifier, why do you say worldwide, instead of Earth-wide?"

I stopped cold and turned to this new Amazon employee. Then, I asked her to tell everyone what her name was and to stand, so everyone could see her. Then, I gave her a standing ovation. She was 100% right. And Amazon had made an excellent hire.