How to Write a Business Narrative that will Impress Bezos
“There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” ― Ernest Hemingway
But then, we are not talking about writing like Hemingway or Nabokov or Alice Munro. You have come up with a project. You are sure it's a winner. You work at a company like Amazon and to take it forward you have to first write about it in a 4-6 page narrative. This document will serve as the pivot for all discussions about the project, something that your colleagues and bosses can read with ease and grasp the ideas you are putting forth.
What are We Looking At?
First things first, we must be in tune with Jeff Bezos' recommendation. "Writing a good 4-page memo is harder than "writing" a 20-page Powerpoint ... the narrative structure of a good memo forces better thought and better understanding of what's more important than what, and how, things are related." Powerpoint presentations are banned at Amazon. Meetings, when needed, have to be structured around a pre-prepared, carefully thought out, flowing narrative.
The prospect of writing a business narrative is daunting to most of us. We baulk at the act because we have never received training for it. Writing with clarity and flow is hard work. Even Hemingway viewed it with trepidation.
Most narratives, business or fiction, have a typical structure. Once we get familiar with this simple scaffolding, the process of writing becomes natural and effortless. Let's look at a 4-step method of producing a business narrative that even Jeff will smile at.
Step 1: Where are We Now?
As Julie Andrews sang, “Let’s start at the very beginning.” What was it that provided the original impetus or spark for putting forward this proposal? Write about it in simple words. The starting point could be one or more of many things. Maybe it was:
- Pain points: Write about whatever produced discomfort in your present situation: things that make you uncomfortable, wary, anxious, frightened or angry.
- Dangers ahead: There may be lurking threats to the organisation which you feel need prompt and proper handling.
- Opportunities: Maybe it’s about things that present a lucrative prospect and could be harnessed for the good of the company. Describe it.
- Innovations: In a rapidly changing business world, it may be that you feel the present set up does not encourage new ideas. To survive, you sense that innovation has to be nurtured.
- Competition: Today’s world is brutally competitive. You know that other groups are sniffing at your heels. We have to start moving faster and farther than them
The number of starting points are limitless but you will have a single, specific item. Identify it and write in detail about it.
Step2: Where are We Headed?
If you don’t know where you are going, one thing is certain: you won’t get there. Describe your goal and ambition. There are many frameworks for outlining this section. A popular one is the “SMART” mnemonic:
S = specific - be clear about what you want.
M = measurable - assess results by objective means.
A = assignable - allocate specific people for specific tasks.
R = realistic - stay within your ways and means — don’t over reach.
T = time bound - be hard nosed about deadlines.
Step3: The road map
We live in the age of Google maps. You wouldn’t stir out anywhere new without first getting a road map. Your narrative must talk of three things.
- The various steps that need to be taken to get to the goal.
- The time limit and deadlines for each step.
- Obstacles that are likely to pop up en route and your plans for working around or over them. Anticipate road blocks.
Step 4: What will it Look Like when You are There?
“Are we there yet?” — the constant refrain of children on a road trip applies to your narrative as well. Don’t just go with gut feelings. Refer back to the stated goals and make sure that you have reached every one of them. Take a hard look.
- Use objective methods of assessment.
- List the benefits and joys of having reached your destination.
- Pitch it against the list that started your journey.
Not Just for Business Narratives — be an Ace Speaker
Storytelling is a sure-fire way to capture attention. Anytime you need to make a presentation, convert it into a story and you will hold your audience during your talk. The framework that we just saw can be used to rephrase an idea into a narrative. With a little imagination, a boring sermon can be transformed into a tale of how the idea was born, its goals, the path to implementation and the view from the top. Like the ad says: "Just do it."
You don't have to use the steps in the order listed. You can play around with it for dramatic effect. For instance, you could open with a vision of what the end looks like, shift to the reason for starting the journey, talk about the road and end with what your goals were. Play around with the four steps and see which order suits the spirit of the narrative
Come Back to Papa Hemingway
You don’t need a vast vocabulary or a smart turn of phrase to write well. Hemingway said this when putting down Faulkner: “Does he really think big emotions come from big words? He thinks I don’t know the ten-dollar words. I know them all right. But there are older and simpler and better words, and those are the ones I use.”
Write from the heart. Focus on:
- Simple language.
- Short sentences.
- Brief paragraphs — each one containing one idea, each paragraph flowing logically into the next.
- Anticipating objections and addressing them ahead of time.
- Redrafting your manuscript many times. Be a ruthless critic of your writing, logic and flow. Every word must have a reason to be there.
Writing well is the best way of thinking well. Which is why anything written is given far more value than spoken words. Penned sentences linger as a legacy of a human being, sometimes well beyond the life of the person who wrote them. To disseminate great ideas, you need to write captivating stories.
“After nourishment, shelter and companionship, stories are the thing we need most in the world.” ― Philip Pullman
Dr Arjun Rajagopalan
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