Exploring Cognitive Engagement in Amazon’s Six Page Narratives


In a previous post, I discussed the Evil Genius of Amazon’s Six Page Narrative, exploring via a Quora post how the document is structured and why it works so well.  In Jeff Bezos’ Financial Year 2017 Letter To Shareholders, Jeff covers the Six Page Narrative and goes into the heavy polishing that a good Narrative provides.

In the Six Page Narratives that I have read, reviewed or discussed, I have always been frustrated with the tendency for authors to not use standard mechanisms to ease the cognitive load of the reader.  For example, below is a typical paragraph that you might find in a Six Pager.

Based on our review of the customer surveys, we can see that the US has customers preference as Product A – 10%, Product B – 40%, and Product C – 20%.  EU interest is Product A – 20%, Product B – 50%, and Product C – 10%.  Finally, JP customers have a preference of Product A – 40%, Product B – 20% and Product C – 15%.   Consequently, we will be focusing on Product A and Product B.

To me, this is clearly tabular data that should be structured in a way that walks the reader through the data providing support for the argument.

Geographic Region Product Preference
A B C
US 10% 40% 20%
EU 20% 50% 10%
JP 40% 20% 15%

As can be seen, there is a clear worldwide preference for Product A and B.

It is clear that with the narrative format, the information needs to be pulled apart by the reader to clarify and confirm the conclusion.  In the tabular format, the information is presented for simple confirmation of interpretation.

It has always felt to me that the narrative form is unfair and unsympathetic to the reader, forcing mental gymnastics where the gymnastics should not be needed.  In my own writing, I have always found the decision to tabulate vs narrate is a decision primarily based on the information density and valuable space consumed where in some cases every line counts.

Recently, I read Thinking, Fast and Slow.  In this book, Daniel Kahneman gave me that lightning bolt answer to what had vexed me about Six Page Narratives so much.

The Six Page Narratives are typically consumed in Amazon’s infamous Reading Meetings, where you have a number of senior leadership people who take the first 10-15 minutes of a meeting to read a Narrative or PR-FAQ, before discussing.  The senior leadership in these meetings are generally very smart and have years of experience. You want these leadership team to be engaged in reviewing the document and surface areas that the author and their supporting team may have not considered.  You need the reader to be cognitively engaged to be able to successfully provide that extra input.

According to Daniel Kahneman’s book, when a reader is having to do cognitive work to consume some information, they will typically think deeper and more broadly than if they were presented the information in a way that lowers cognitive load.

Assuming that Thinking, Fast and Slow is correct, it puts the onus on the author of a narrative to make a conscious decision as to where that knife edge is between getting reader to think through the problem, possibly gaining deeper insights, or to present the information and allow them to be taken on the cognitive easy course.  Or put slightly differently, how to make the choice between engaging a reader, or simply informing them.

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5 thoughts on “Exploring Cognitive Engagement in Amazon’s Six Page Narratives”

  1. Very interesting comparison. I am new to both sources . ( I come from appreciating elements of the 6-page narrative from a book called The Presentation Techniques of Steve Jobs – specifically introducing a baddie or problem in the narrative that the product announcement turns out to address.)
    I wonder if the challenge of choosing to write for high or low cognitive load is actually solved by the narrative format – a good narrative starts with an unquestionable scenario – simple in its truth and (arguably) therefore low in cognitive loads and introduces further elements for, again, simple and undeniable reasons. By the middle of the story you now found yourself with the conflict that these elements cause with each other that needs to be resolved. The narrative framework has walked you voluntarily into high cognitive engagement.

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    1. Ref http://upfrontanalytics.com/market-research-system-1-vs-system-2-decision-making/
      A narrative can walk you through (and primed or anchored) by a narrative if the low cognitive load is maintained. Forcing cognitive engagement (ie: tabular data in narrative form) helps resist priming and forces consideration. As an exercise, it would be interesting to do controlled experiments with two forms of documents – one with high cognitive load, one with low cognitive load – and see what the difference in engagement is within the team.

      I would expect that you will have deeper discussions in the high cognitive load narrative, and would get an easier agreement with the low cognitive load narrative.

      Ultimately it comes down to if you want to inform or engage.

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  2. https://polldaddy.com/js/rating/rating.js
    https://polldaddy.com/js/rating/rating.jsYes – this brings to mind the example of airport novels vs literary novels. For the airport novel, cliches are a recognised way to take a reader through familiar responses, the trick being, I guess, to tease enough high-cog-tickling curiosity and originality to make it feel worth pursuing. If a story is too low cog it risks being boring.
    So I am wondering – Is the ingredient that improves a boring read into being an easy read , the same thing that turns an easy read into a deep read? Is there just more of it? And might it be down to the ratio of familiar to unfamiliar patterns?
    As an aside, it occurred to me Goldilocks is ‘tabular data in narrative form’ : a low cog way to reveal a pattern in the data 🙂

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    1. Airport novels play to a familiar story, they are intended to play more or less the same to ease the travel. Arguably, reading a good literary novel on an aircraft is not as enjoyable when the drinks trolley comes by and knocks you out of your zone. If you get jolted out of your spot with an airport novel, you can generally land +/- a paragraph or two and not feel that you’ve missed anything, or you can be disturbed 2 or 3 times on a page and not miss a key plot point since it all “make sense”. That places the onus to create the interesting character rather than the interesting story, I’d argue against airport novels triggering cognitive engagement.

      Hmm… Not sure about a boring read into a good read… Maybe small unexpected twists in a familiar story. (The protagonist is trapped… in an underwater cage). The protagonist will always always be trapped… but I wasn’t expecting the underwater cage… Maybe. But I’m not a fiction author.

      An easy read into a deep read, I’d say there is a lot more “reward center” going on in the latter. If fiction, having the reader build up a plausible next step in the plot, and reward that forward looking, but add the unexpected twist… I’m sure there is a lot of work about “good fiction” works. For me, with non-fiction, a good read will be where I can see the narrative close a gap in something that had bothered me in the past. This very blog post is one of those, *ding* I get it now moments, which makes the deep read worthwhile when it takes my current understanding and adds new patterns and data.

      Thanks for your feedback.

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