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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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