How To Use Narrative Memos to Innovate Better



“The future ain’t what it used to be.” — Yogi Berra

A well-written, narrative Memo of your vision is perhaps the greatest way that any leader, or innovator, or futurist, or individual can share and scale their idea with the world.

In my experience, there is no better way to share an idea, a dream, or vision, or really paint a story of the future, than a well-written Vision Memo.

It’s the power of prose and the power of the pen to move minds and build a coalition of the willing.

In my experience, so many people have great ideas, but their audience never really gets to learn what that idea actually is. The idea gets lost among a sea of slides, or hacked into little sound bytes, cut off in conversations, or turned into clever graphics that reduce the idea to nothing more than a pretty picture of nothing.

That’s no way to create an “idea virus.”

If you want to create ideas that spread, you need a better way… the memo way.

A Memorable Memo Plants Ideas Firmly in the Minds of Your Audience

Your mind is an endless sea of slots. Some slots are taken, such as Kleenex or online book store, or search engine. But your mind is always creating new slots as new ideas etch their way in, and new categories are created.

Imagine this….

Picture a friendly, well-written essay that reads in a very personable way, that walks you through some big idea. To set the stage and the context, this letter walks you through the way things were. Then how they changed. Then what the opportunity now is. Then what the big idea is. And then, lights up in detail how this idea will change the world.

By the time you finish reading it, this Vision Memo just planted a new idea in your mind, or a new way to see the world.

You just got a full glimpse of an epic version of a potential future… a vision.

Create a Personal Walkthrough of the Idea (No Presenter Required)

Here is the big idea…

As the presenter, you write the idea down in a way that walks through the past, the present, and the future, and makes it real in the minds of those you hope to influence.

In essence, answer the question:

“How will the world change with your idea?”

A written memo. Not a list of bullet points. Not a pretty slide deck. Not a flashy video. Not a code demo that may or may not work. Not a long, boring, formal document. But a hand-crafted essay that takes your audience by the hand and walks them through the idea in a way where they can actually follow it.

Note that all those additional forms and formats are great additions, but only after the original “story” of the idea is fully captured and shared in a text narrative form.

As the reader, you can read this Vision Memo at your leisure, at your own pace, to your heart’s content. With all the translation services, language is not a barrier. And with text-to-speech, you can have it read to you, if you like. But it’s all the best thinking, right there for you, down on paper (well, virtual paper.)

Best of all, if you never get to see or hear the originator, present or speak, this is the closest thing to a personal walkthrough of the idea in detail.

What a great way to get everybody on the same page — no matter where, no matter the timezone, no matter the language, no matter the format, etc.

So Many Great Ideas Die on the Vine

I’ve seen so many great ideas die, long before they got to see the light of day. The easiest thing to blame is a lack of execution. But I would argue that so many great ideas never get a fighting chance.

The idea was only “presented” in half-baked various forms. If it was even presented at all.

I get so many ideas presented to me all the time. A lot of times it’s a pitch deck, or a whole batch of slides. Other times, it’s a meeting where the person probably has a much better, much more complete story in their mind, then the sound bytes and briefing they are sharing with their mouth. Storytelling is a skill.

I wonder how many more beautiful ideas would change the world, if they were shared in a simple, more open, more narrative way.

How Amazon Innovates with 6-Page Memos

A friend of mine was sharing with me that he’s really a fan of well-written narratives to tell and sell ideas. He noted that Amazon uses 6-page memos to think through and improve ideas in a far deeper way.

I got curious.

What is Amazon’s 6-page memo approach, how is it working, and what’s so special?

And is there a better way to share and scale ideas in today’s world?

Let’s explore…

The Amazon 6-Pager Approach in a Nutshell

The Amazon 6-pager approach is pretty simple:

  • Staff meetings begin with 30 minutes of silent reading.
  • All meetings are structured around a 6 page memo. As Jeff Bezos put it: “When you have to write your ideas out in complete sentences, complete paragraphs it forces a deeper clarity.” (Note that 6 pages is the max page limit, but it can be shorter.)
  • No slide presentations. Slides are easy for the presenter, but difficult for the audience. A well-written memo is more difficult for the presenter, but easier for the audience.

Talk about slowing down to speed up. And what a great way to really lay out and frame out an idea down on paper.

The Structure of a Narrative Memo

A well-written narrative really connects the dots between the past, present, and the future, in a story-driven, relatable way.

Shawn Callahan really captures the essence in What Might Amazon’s Six-Page Narrative Structure Look Like?:

“Narrative shows a series of events, revealing how one impacts the next. The sort of language you hear in a narrative is ‘But then …’ and ‘Because of that …’ and ‘So now …’.

The narrative becomes a container for what is happening and what might happen.

It can also hold people’s opinions and points of view, so you might have language like ‘It’s my view that …’ and ‘I recommend …’.

Without the narrative, you just get a series of disconnected facts and opinions. Collectively, it won’t make sense.”

Narrative Text Trumps Bullets When Walking Through Ideas

Jeff Bezos sent an email back in 2004 to explain why shift from slides to narrative text:

“A little more to help with the question ‘why.’ Well structured narrative text is what we’re after rather than just text. If someone builds a list of bullet points in Word, that would be just as bad as PowerPoint.

The reason writing a good 4 page memo is harder than ‘writing’ a 20 page PowerPoint is because the narrative structure of a good memo forces better thought and better understanding of what’s important than what, and how things are related.

Powerpoint-style presentations somehow give permission to gloss over ideas, flatten out any sense of related importance, and ignore the interconnectedness of ideas.”

Magical Meetings at Amazon

Brad Porter, VP and Distinguished engineer at Amazon, has a great way to describe his experience with meetings at Amazon:

“How great would it be not to be constantly interrupted by clarifying questions? How great would it be not to have the decisions in the meeting based on the social networking advocacy that happened before the meeting?

How great would it be if executives deeply understood your organization from your perspective before asserting they know better how to do it?

How great would it be to be able to review the core data going into a decision rather than have someone summarize it and assert that correlation is causality without revealing their work?

This is what meetings are like at Amazon and it is magical.”

The Secret Sauce of How Amazon Innovates Better, Faster, Easier

I think two bits of insight from Brad Porter, really make the big idea pop.

First Porter, who has been around the block, makes it clear that sharing ideas in narrative, written form helps a big company like Amazon run better:

“In 2012, Conor Neill summarized Amazon’s unique approach to running meetings by driving the meeting around the 6-page narrative. So I don’t think I’m revealing Amazon secret sauce by describing the process. Where I run some risk of revealing too much is by telling you that Amazon absolutely runs better, makes better decisions, and scales better because of this particular innovation.”

Second, Porter articulates in a very crisp way that sharing insights and ideas in narrative form is actually the backbone of Amazon’s speed and scale. These text-based narratives are what empowers leaders and individuals across the company to play in so many businesses at once:

“Outsiders sometimes look at Amazon and wonder how Amazon can possibly focus on so many different businesses at once. The answer is that Amazon has fundamentally innovated in how to scale the process of bringing groups of people deeply up to speed in new spaces and making critical decisions based on that insight quickly. Speed and scale are weapons and Amazon has already told everyone its secret… if only they have the discipline to implement it.”

The Problems with Presentations

As much as I enjoy a great presentation, if learning about an idea depends on being in a particular room at the right time, or meeting with the right people, or having the originator walk you through in person, that’s a problem in any business that runs 24/7 around the world.

I’ve been in so many meetings where the presenter wasn’t a great presenter, even if the idea was awesome. Or, I’ve missed meetings, and then without the presenter, the slides didn’t make any sense. Or, maybe even more common, I’ve been in meetings where the presenter never gets to actually walk through their idea, because they are cut off, or grilled with questions right up front.

And then there’s the case of the professional meeting goers, where they keep presenting their same idea, to the point where it’s just a routine act, and it gets so slick it’s really just a dog-and-pony show.

And then there’s the fancier stuff where people make demos of their ideas, or visualizations, and yet, the full story or context of the idea, the full breadth and depth of the vision, still only exists in the originator’s head. Imagine if they shared it in narrative text where other people could help improve the thinking and improve the idea.

I really can’t believe how many beautiful castles in the mind, never got shared, beyond small circles and close-knit choirs.

The Big Benefits of a Written Approach

I can flash back to several Vision Memos during my career, where an amazing Program Manager or executive or leader, or individual, sent a beautiful email that walked through the story of their idea.

They painted a vivid picture of the current and emerging landscape. Like a masterful storyteller, they painted the backdrop and set the stage for their vision.

They would walk through the pains that everybody could relate to, and the challenges before us. And then they would walk through what they see in their mind, how we could make the world a better place.

These amazing Vision Memos were educational, aspirational, and inspirational. And they gave a voice to bold thinking that could be read around the world.

Imagine being able to read through an idea. Again. And again.

I don’t know about you, but I often find that good ideas are like Russian nesting dolls. The bigger idea unfolds into many smaller ideas. So the more times I can really walk through an idea, the more I can absorb it, internalize it, and play with it in my mind.

If the author gets “hit by a bus”, the idea is still there.

Even for ideas that have a full book dedicated to them, I wish they also came with a Vision Memo that consolidated the big idea down into a smaller, more compact guide that walked me through the author’s framing of the idea.

So many books spread an idea out over so many pages, that it’s easy to lose the plot, or worse, the needles are buried among stacks of hay.

I can’t tell you how many slides I’ve had to dig through over the years, to try to piece meal the story of an idea. And, again, without the original presenter, a lot of times, it’s not really possible to do justice to the idea.

Great Leaders Share their Vision in Written Form

I have a dream. Ring a bell? What a powerful way to lead off sharing a vision of the future.

Do you know the crazy ones? Here’s a blurb from the Think Different campaign:

“Here’s to the crazy ones.

The misfits.

The rebels.

The troublemakers.

The round pegs in the square holes.

The ones who see things differently.”

Have you heard Chief Tecumseh’s death poem? He inspires us to live without the fear of death in our hearts and beautify all things life. Here’s a blurb:

“So live your life that the fear of death can never enter your heart. Trouble no one about their religion; respect others in their view, and demand that they respect yours.

Love your life, perfect your life, beautify all things in your life. Seek to make your life long and its purpose in the service of your people.”

Have you read the Declaration of Personal Power by Brendon Burchard? Here’s a thoughtful blurb:

“We must look squarely into our own tired eyes and examine why we waste so much time sniffing at every distraction, why we cower at the thought of revealing our true selves to the world, why we scurry so quickly from conflict, and why we consent to play small.

We must ask why we participate so humbly in society’s frantic race, allowing our- selves into its mazes of mediocrity and settling for scraps of reward when nature has offered unlimited freedom, power, and abundance to the bold, the determined, the creative, the independent — to each of us.

We must ask if our desires to feel safe and accepted are in fact enslaving us to popular opinion — and to boredom. We must ask: When will we be ready to ascend to another level of existence?”

Do you know the Agile Manifesto? What a great team of leaders banding together to share a vision for the future of software:

“We are uncovering better ways of developing software by doing it and helping others do it.

Through this work we have come to value:

Individuals and interactions over processes and tools

Working software over comprehensive documentation

Customer collaboration over contract negotiation

Responding to change over following a plan

That is, while there is value in the items on the right, we value the items on the left more.”

Have you see Jeff Bezos’s letter to shareholders? He introduces the idea of Day 1 for the Internet and sets the vision for Amazon:

“But this is Day 1 for the Internet and, if we execute well, for Today, online commerce saves customers money and precious time.

Tomorrow, through personalization, online commerce will accelerate the very process of discovery. uses the Internet to create real value for its customers and, by doing so, hopes to create an enduring franchise, even in established and large markets.”

Great Leaders Learn from Written Form

As a kid, maybe you learned from Dr. Suess, “Oh, the Places You’ll Go.” Or, maybe you learned from the Golden Book series, classic stories like The Little Engine that Could.

And, as a grown up, even if you’re still a kid at heart, you know that “leaders are readers.”

It’s the fastest way to share insights across borders and boundaries of all kinds.

But now you have so many people all around you with stories that you will never hear. Or, at least you won’t likely hear them in their full depth and glory.

You’ll get glimpses and sound bytes and bullet points.

Maybe you’ll get taste or two if you are lucky enough to be in the right presentation, at the right time, and the presenter steps out of corporate mode character and into their fully intelligent, human form, and speaks to you from the heart, with passion, purpose, and precision in a way that, maybe for the first time, truly conveys what their idea is all about.

A few leaders I know are great t learning from everyone. And they do it at scale.

Bill Gates was famous for his Think Week paper approach to learning ideas from employees across the company.

And I know other leaders to that have used a written, narrative approach to scanning the forest of ideas to learn from people at the edge, living and breathing the future.

Why is the Power of a Vision Memo Such a Lost Art?

We are wired for stories. But what we end up with are data points out of context, sound bytes, pretty pictures, and punchlines.

I see so many case studies that tell me nothing, when what I need is a case story. I see so many pitches, when what I need is a simple walkthrough from the user’s experience of how the world will be different.

If sharing ideas in written form is so powerful, why is it such a lost art?

  • It’s tough. For one thing, writing is tough. Writing exposes your thinking and clarity, or lack thereof. And, so many people lost the muscle. Or, they have bad memories from their school day papers.
  • Business writing isn’t for humans. A lot of dry, formal business writing got in the way. Smart people lost their voices. Who wants to read a dense sheet of single-space, formal fonts, void of humanity. Conversational writing wins over formal writing when you’re communicating with people.
  • Not enough support. People turned writing into a chore, instead of a chance to share great thinking. Writing is actually a great team sport, when people play well together. Just like a band playing music. Or a team of developers writing code. Bring back the joy and master your craft while realizing your potential as a team to catapult ideas into the forefront of the future. Band together and be brilliant. Let your fodder fly.
  • Not good enough. Too many people feel they aren’t good enough. Just like public speaking, many people, fear they are not good enough, or don’t have ideas worth sharing. They miss out on the idea that they have a unique twist and perspective on how they see the world because of how their world view, their mindset, their attitude, their beliefs, their values, and their experiences. And they missed Brene Brown’s famous talk on vulnerability where she said that the only difference between those that feel valued, and those that don’t, is they choose it — it’s a choice (just like whether you choose to live your days like Eeyore or Tigger, as Randy Pausch might say.)
  • Too waterfall. Too many people approach writing in a waterfall way. They would be more effective writing the agile way, and writing from a Growth Mindset. Imagine writing where you learn and adapt and improve your writing over time, with the help of others, and pairing up to express ideas in a collaborative way.

I was lucky to grow up in a group where we placed a premium on sharing ideas out in the open so that we could make the ideas better together.

I learned that none of us is as smart as all of us, as Ken Blanchard would say. So I loved the fact that putting an idea down on paper was the beginning, not the end.

Focus on progress, not perfection.

A lot of times, I knew I had an idea but I needed help expressing it. And nothing is more frustrating than seeing how things could be, but lacking the ability to express it in a way that everybody gets.

That’s why innovation is truly a team sport. And a written expression of the Vision, makes it easy for others to chime in.

I Have a Dream…

I do have a dream.

I wish more people shared their ideas. Don’t die with your music still in you.

The human voice is one of the most amazing instruments on the planet. Couple that with a mind, and add your heart, and that’s how magic happens.

Write your ideas down and share them with people. Share your version of what you think the future could look like.

Walk us through as if you are sharing an idea with a friend.

How Every Business is in the Journalist Business

Every now and then folks ask me how I would improve the business. They ask me how would I change the game.

I have a lot of ideas, but one of the simplest ones I believe is by investing in journalists.

Every day, something amazing is happening around the world in the business, and people can’t learn about it fast enough.

The best stories I get are in emails from colleagues and when I meet with people 1:1 to hear their stories of behind the scenes.

So much gets lost in translation when the original story gets turned into a formal presentation or a case study. Somehow all the interesting nuances and specifics get lost when somebody tries to “scale” their story and generalize it for a broad audience or turn it into generic advice. I’d much rather hear them just walk through what they actually did, raw and real, flaws and all.

After all, we’re all human and that’s how we learn from each other.

I believe a team of skilled journalists could help rapidly share the stories, the scenarios, the trends, and gems of insights from around the world.

And I believe that a team of skilled journalists could help coach more people how to share their stories in a human and interesting way.

A Modern Medium for Sharing and Scaling Ideas

In an effort to collect real stories, from real people, about real things that really matter, I challenged myself:

“What is the best way I’ve seen where people share real stories in a human way?”

When I really thought about it, the answer is blogging. I remember when so many people, many for the first time in their lives, were sharing their learning and feeding off each other. For the first, time you could hear from somebody with first-hand experience. You could hear things raw and real.

But then blogging got complicated, Too many people had to learn how to administrators and marketers and authors.

This is where I think changes the game. I found myself reading on Medium and thinking that reading was fun again. Clean pages of thoughts, ideas, and stories at my fingertips from bunches of people I never heard of (and those I have).

Imagine if was also an internal platform for companies to share their internal learnings and insights across the company. It’s power to the people on a powerful platform optimized for writing and sharing stories and ideas. I see people learning on Medium at warp speed, as the tribes of writes learn how to frame better headlines, craft better stories, and light each other’s minds on fire.

Medium is modern blogging with the best lessons carried forward, where readers and writers lift each other up.

Create Great Vision Memos to Change the World

Well, this turned out to be more than I planned on saying.

I planned on just sharing a few quick thoughts on how I see how memos can really change the world.

I wanted to reminisce about the memos that I miss, share my appreciation for a lost art, and help it make a come back by sharing my experience.

But serendipity happens, and the more I wrote about the power of memos, that more I realize how deeply powerful they are indeed.

Looking back, I wish I had shared so many more of my ideas as Vision Memos. I think of all the presentations and meetings where, even in a great session, so much more to the ideas, never really got shared.

And I think of all the ideas where presenting the same session over and over got boring, and then I probably didn’t do the ideas justice anymore. Or where I had ideas that if I had a memo, I could re-hydrate the kernel of the idea, the essence, and revisit how to apply that idea now.

I wish I could just share some well-written memos.

Example of a Narrative Memo

Here is an example Vision Memo that I wrote to inspire business innovation at Microsoft:

Example Memo–The Rise of the Business Evangelist at Microsoft – JD Meier

Is it perfect?  No.

Is it effective?  Very.  At least many fellow Softies have told me so.  They tell me it was the first time they saw a full picture view of what was possible for Digital Advisors in terms of leading a powerful transformation at Microsoft from IT vendor to business partner with customers.

I wrote it in an hour.   I wrote it in email so that I could easily share it.   I could easily port it to a Word doc.   Because it’s text it’s easy to translate.  Because it’s in an email, it’s easy to listen to by the hearing impaired, which is another reason why I wrote it as if talking a friend through “the big idea.”

Tip – Always write a memo as if explaining to a friend, so that you keep it conversational, human, and easy to understand.

Light the World on Fire with Your Human-Side and Set Your Inner Storyteller Free

The moral of the story here is:

Great Vision Memos change lives, and shape the world.

Change the world you way. Start with your version of a story of how things could be better. Light it up with depth and detail and breathe new life into your ideas.

You just might give them a chance to see the light of day.

We are ready to hear the real human in you…

Captivate us.

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