The Evil Genius of the Amazon Six Page Narrative

One of the leadership tools that Amazon uses internally is the Six Page Narrative. This is where a decision that needs to be made is presented as a narrative document, restricted to six pages, with appendixes. The outcome of the narrative is a go/no-go on the subject. The meetings that discuss the narratives are typically 15 minutes of silent reading/note taking followed by 30-45 minutes of deep dive questions and clarifications. The best possible outcome is 5-10 minutes of discussion and then a “Good narrative, I agree, go do it!”. A bad outcome is “I now have more questions than I started with, let’s stop the meeting now and meet again in two weeks.

The narrative is actually fairly evil in its construction. The six pages and the structure of the document itself are ultimately fairly arbitrary. It is the forced revision/improvement/validation that is forced to fit into six pages that is critical. As many a good orator has mentioned conveying detailed content concisely takes longer to prepare than long form.

The six pages is a hard limit for the narrative (and no, you should drop to 6 point font with 0.25 inch margins, that defeats the point). By forcing a limited set of pages it forces the author (or authors) to go through numerous drafts to reshape the document, polishing it by ejecting, rewriting abstracting and summarizing as you go along. This forces a reasonable taxonomy and structure of information within the subsections and a good ordering of information. This repeated revision to fit takes the mental work that the reader must undertake to correlate and rationalize the information. If the document takes the reader is taken through a clear path where the questions are almost immediately answered, it shows clarity of thought and understanding, increasing confidence in the author far more than a set of bullet points on a powerpoint.

One final part that is overlooked in the six-page structure is the appendixes. The appendixes carry the data, the validation, the information that feeds into the narrative that isn’t needed to support the narrative, but is needed for completeness and cross-reference. You can say “our data supports this information as follows”, the appendix allows the reader to dive deeper into the data to ensure that they would draw the same conclusion, but assuming that the data presented in the narrative can be taken as interpreted correctly, then the narrative can still hold it’s own.

This approach is common when needing to write a concise 1 or 2 paragraph email. You write what you want, re-work, re-work, re-work. Placing a sometimes arbitrary boundary on an output forces a deeper consideration than would otherwise be delivered.

Other Amazonian documents have a similar templated structure that to some extent is inviolable structure. The 1 pager, the working back document, the root cause analysis, all structured to force the presenter to think, structure and organize their thoughts. For communicating business information, I don’t think I’ve seen it necessary to present a Powerpoint for quite some time.

The narrative form still has some risks. To stick with the narrative form, authors are sometimes tempted to inline what is better communicated with tables a) option a – 15, b) option y – 25, c) option z – 10. By its nature, this information is tabular in form. A small structured table can carry a lot more information and take considerable cognitive load away from a reader. The narrative author must balance the use of prose with other information dense methods of presenting information.

What other documents does your organization use to communicate ideas? Are the powerpoint templates still the ruler of your domain?

I’ve also added a deeper dive into part of six page narrative with a discussion of cognitive engagement.

This is a Quora crosspost from this answer. I’m reposting my popular answers here for posterity. Obviously in a different context it has been modified slightly primarily putting context inline