Lists and numbers versus stories

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.

Mapping The Entertainment Ecosystems

Mapping The Entertainment Ecosystems has already been blogged by John Gruber so you have already read it, so this is more for my own reference as anyone else’s.

In case you haven’t already seen it, Mapping The Entertainment Ecosystems of Apple, Microsoft, Google & Amazon maps the entertainment ecosystems – Music, Movies, TV Shows, eBooks and App stores – of Apple, Google, Microsoft and Amazon across the planet with some nice interaction HTML5 maps.

It makes for interesting reading/viewing. Note how absent Africa is from most of the maps apart from eBooks and Apps and North Africa is pretty much absent from all of them.

(And if you find that interesting, you’ll love Worldmapper – one of my favourite sites to explore data cartographically).

How much is good service worth? £25m for Amazon UK.

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(Photo credit: xrrr on Flickr)

Amazon’s entire offering really boils down to two things.

The first is to facilitate a person in a warehouse somewhere picking a book off a shelf and sending it to you. Every other part of the service and online experience is essentially about making that happen ideally as swiftly, effortlessly and enjoyably as possible.

The second is to recommend books to you that you are either considering buying or didn’t even know existed. That part is what all the collaborative filtering (people who bought this also bought that), reviews and rating mechanisms are for. Usually the second point leads to the first – you make a purchase and they send it to you.

Key to this entire service experience is time. It’s quick to find things, quick to find alternatives and quick to get the book once you buy it. If you want to take longer to meander through a bookstore that is one of the (few) advantages bricks and mortar bookstores have. Time is important there too, but in the opposite way, hence the preponderance of cafés in bookstores or café/bookstores. If you feel hustled and harried by the staff to make a purchase and get out, that’s poor service.

If it takes ages for something to arrive from Amazon a large part of the point of Amazon is lost. By ages, I mean more than about a week. That’s the Amazon equivalent of going into a physical bookstore and asking for a book only to hear the response, “We don’t have it in stock, but we can order it for you – it will be here in about four to six weeks”. (Incidentally, does any bookstore worker not think at that moment, “They’re thinking Amazon.com right now”?). Delivery time for Amazon makes almost the entire difference – it’s one of the key advantages along with the enormous inventory that is the pay off to the disadvantage of not being able to browse the physical books.

Amazon is a classic case of a service that is deeply susceptible to the level of service its partners can provide. The Royal Mail, once the envy of the world’s postal services, has gone from bad to worse over the past couple of decades and today the Guardian reports that they have just lost a £25m contract with Amazon because of the current strike. They already lost a smaller £8m contract in the last strikes.

So much is fairly obvious albeit sad. What was particularly interesting from a service design perspective is that the Home Delivery Network (a private, rival service to the Royal Mail) have said, “We are seeing a number of our customers preparing to start marketing their deliveries as free of Royal Mail risk”. When your service is so bad that avoiding using it becomes a selling point for another service or product, you know you have big problems.