Lists and numbers versus stories

by Andy Polaine on December 16, 2013

in General

Eugene Wei posted a piece about why our brains love lists over on his Remains of the Day blog. It explains why all those “20 ways to…” blog post headlines are such popular click bait. But it’s not the list thing that I found so interesting, rather this snippet of Wei’s experience of working at Amazon.com:

At Amazon, Jeff Bezos hated when folks would bring giant Powerpoint decks to present to him. While you’d be speaking to your first slide he’d already flipped to the end of the deck, having absorbed it all, and would start firing questions at you about slide 27. After a while he was so sick of the whole charade he banned Powerpoints and forced everyone to start bringing ideas to him in prose form.

Although I do often present with a slide deck, it is usually just one of images plus single straplines. (I also use Keynote rather than the design disaster that is PowerPoint, which means less time dicking around with formatting). The art of telling your story is crucial and I find a sequence of images works like a storyboard for me. I try to work out what the narrative is of I want to say.

I’m fascinated by Bezos insisting on prose form because I think it forces people to think through their idea as an experience much more than PowerPoint slide decks do. PowerPoint decks encourage a particular paradox—they allow people to present far too much information in a format that leaves out too much information. Single bullet points and list items can be wormholes into whole discussions and cover up all sorts of assumptions. Tufte has already covered the problems with PowerPoint, of course.

Writing in prose or constructing a narrative forces you to think of your audience and that leap of empathy is a crucial difference. PowerPoint is broadcast, a machine gun full of bullet points sprayed at an unwilling audience. Storytelling is seduction, pull rather than push.

That Bezos insists on this approach is interesting because a lot of managers want slide decks, believing, I assume, that having all the information in note form means they are more productive and efficient or some other bullshit executive myth. In reality, they’ll make their own assumptions, reading their ideas into the spaces between the list items and then switch off.

A good story, well told, hooks the listener—no need to try and force them to pay attention. I would imagine that if Bezos feels drawn in by the story of the idea, he assumes customers will be too. This feels evident in the recent Amazon Air stunt. It’s not about a cold-hearted, rational business proposition, but about selling an idea in the form of a story.

Developing a story of an idea might sound rather fluffy and emotional to some managers, particularly those who place great store in that other poor vehicle for human experience, the spreadsheet. Numbers feel solid, rational, impossible to argue with. But a business proposition presented in a spreadsheet also contains forecasts of growth/profit/customers. What people tend to forget is that these are also made up numbers. It is why so many tech stock analysts regularly reveal themselves to be idiots. Tell someone a story and they will poke holes in it in no time. Storytelling is an art and it’s actually much harder than most people believe. Honing an idea to be told in 300 words of prose is way harder than plonking a few bullet points on a slide.

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