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.