I analyzed Jeff Bezos’ 48,000 word Amazon shareholder letters. The visionary billionaire does 8 impressive things that prove he is a master of written communication.

  • Carmine Gallo is a Harvard instructor and author of The Bezos Blueprint.
  • He says Bezos uses simple words, often one syllables, to talk about difficult things.
  • Gallo says Bezos also used a “Day 1” mentality that involved obsessing over the customer.

This story originally appeared on Business Insider.

Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for DJ via Business Insider

Jeff Bezos wrote 48,000 words in his letters.

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos is a dreamer who turned a bold idea into one of the world’s most admired brands. When Bezos took the company public in 1997, he began writing annual letters to shareholders, a habit he continued until he stepped down as chief executive in 2021.

Bezos wrote just over 48,000 words in total. His letters fueled Amazon’s growth and created innovative communication strategies.

“The Bezos letters give us a unique opportunity to see a genius explain his work,” says Jean-Louise Gassee, a former Apple executive and Silicon Valley venture capitalist. “The letters would be terrific material for a business school strategy and communication course.”

Fortunately, you won’t have to wait for a business school to offer a class on the Bezos letters. I did the analysis in my new book, The Bezos project.

1. Make mission your mantra

In his first letter, Bezos laid out the principle that would drive the company’s decisions for the next quarter century: obsession with the customer.

Bezos formalized the principle in the company’s mission two years later when he wrote that Amazon was on a quest to build “the most customer-centric company on Earth.”

A company’s mission statement means very little without a repeater-in-chief who explains and amplifies the mission at every opportunity. For example, Bezos quoted “client” 506 times in 24 letters, an average of 21 times per letter. He credited the mission with creating Amazon’s secret sauce, “the number one thing that has made us successful.”

2. Use simple words to talk about difficult things

Some 70% of Bezos’s letters are easy to read for most people with an eighth or ninth grade education (ages 13-15). Surprisingly, as Amazon got bigger and infinitely more complex, Bezos chose simpler words to express big ideas.

For example, in the 2007 letter (written in eighth grade language), Bezos described the Kindle e-reader for the first time, using almost entirely one- and two-syllable words:

“If you come across a word you don’t recognize, you can easily look it up. You can search your books… If your eyes are tired, you can change the font size. Our vision for Kindle is that every book has been printed in any language, all available in less than 60 seconds.”

When you write simply, you are not simplifying the content. You are outwitting the competition.

3. Use the active voice (most of the time)

Jeff Bezos founded Amazon in 1994. The above sentence is “active” because the subject (Bezos) performs the action (founded). The passive form of the sentence is: Amazon was founded by Jeff Bezos in 1994.

Stephen King blames the passive voice for ruining “just about every business document ever written.” Bezos must have read King’s advice because passive sentences make up only 6.5% of the text in his letter to shareholders.

Sentences written in the active voice require fewer words, get to the point faster, and are easier to understand. Strive to write in the active voice as much as possible.

Four. master the metaphor

Bezos named his company Amazon because it acted as a metaphor, a comparison between two things that share similarities. In 1998, Bezos explained that he wanted to communicate that Amazon, the company, is “the greatest bookstore on Earth,” just as Amazon in South America is “the greatest river on Earth.”

Neuroscientists say that the human brain evolved to use metaphors to communicate with and process the world around them. When we come across something new, our brain kicks into gear and looks for familiar comparisons. Good communicators do the work for their readers and listeners, using metaphors as educational tools.

Bezos filled his letters with carefully selected metaphors to explain complex ideas. he introduced frills To fuel growth, he created teams of two pizzas and hired missionaries about mercenaries.

Aristotle once called the metaphor the “most formidable weapon” of an orator, and Bezos wielded it like a master.

5. Recognize that writing well takes time.

In the summer of 2004, Bezos made a decision that rocked his management team. He banned PowerPoint. He replaced the introductions with “narratively structured six-page memos.”

In his 2017 letter to shareholders, Bezos explained that while the quality of written memos varies widely, some have “the clarity of singing angels.”

Writing is hard, and good writing takes time, Bezos explained. He said people mistakenly believe that a six-page book that meets high standards can be written in a day, or even a few hours.

“It could really take a week or more,” Bezos said. “Great memos are written and rewritten, shared with colleagues who are asked to improve the work, set aside for a couple of days, then re-edited with a fresh mind. They just can’t be done in a day.” or two.”

6. Surround yourself with superstars

In his 1998 letter, Bezos revealed the questions Amazon hiring managers ask when evaluating job applicants.

  • Will you admire this person? Bezos says that he always tries to work with people he can learn from or look up to as an example of excellence.
  • Will this person increase the effectiveness of the group? If you want to be successful in life or in your career, hang out with people who challenge you to be the best you can be.
  • In which dimension will the person be a superstar? Spend your time with the superstars who inspire you to aim higher than you ever dreamed possible.

7. Work backwards to get ahead

Bezos challenged his executives to work backwards from the customer’s perspective by writing a mock press release before creating a product.

“Kindle is a good example of our fundamental approach,” Bezos wrote in 2008. More than four years before the product’s introduction, the Kindle team wrote a press release that said: “All books, in print, in any language , all available in less than 60 seconds.”

Before engineers write a line of code at Amazon, they start with a press release. According to CEO Andy Jassy, ​​who wrote a press release years before launching AWS, Amazon’s giant cloud computing division, “The press release is designed to highlight all the benefits of the product to make sure it really is solving the customer’s problem.” .”

8. Maintain a “Day 1” culture

Beginning in 1998, Bezos enclosed a copy of his first letter with the reminder “It’s always the 1st.”

Day 1 is not a thing, it’s a mindset that represents obsessing with the customer, thinking long term, and daring to innovate to meet customer needs.

Bezos revealed what “Day 2” looked like in 2016. Bezos wrote: “Day 2 is stasis. Followed by irrelevance. Followed by excruciating and painful decline. Followed by death. And that’s why it’s always the Day 1”.

Jeff Bezos was in charge of Amazon for 9,863 days, but he always showed up for work on the first day. By referencing Day 1 with surprising consistency, Bezos turned a metaphor from a figure of speech into a blueprint for how to think, act and lead.

Carmine Gallo is a Harvard instructor and author of The Bezos Blueprint.

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