- Carmine Gallo is a Harvard instructor and the author of The Bezos Blueprint.
- He says Bezos uses simple, often one-syllable words, to talk through difficult things.
- Gallo says Bezos also used a “Day 1” mindset that involved obsessing over the customer.
This story originally appeared on Business Insider.
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 that continued until he stepped aside as CEO in 2021.
Bezos wrote just over 48,000 words in all. 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 make splendid material for a business school course on strategy and communication.”
Thankfully, you won’t need to wait for a business school to offer a class on the Bezos letters. I did the analysis in my new book, The Bezos Blueprint.
1. Make the mission your mantra
In his first letter, Bezos laid out the principle that would drive the company’s decisions for the next quarter century: customer obsession.
Bezos formalized the principle into the company’s mission two years later when he wrote that Amazon was on a quest to build “Earth’s most customer-centric company.”
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 cited the “customer” 506 times across 24 letters, an average of 21 times per letter. He credited the mission for creating Amazon’s secret sauce, “the number one thing that has made us successful.”
2. Use simple words to talk about hard things
A full 70% of Bezos’ letters are easy to read for most people with an eighth or ninth-grade education (13 to 15 years old). Remarkably, as Amazon grew larger 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 look it up easily. You can search your books…If your eyes are tired, you can change the font size. Our vision for Kindle is every book ever printed in any language, all available in less than 60 seconds.”
When you write simply, you’re not dumbing down the content. You’re outsmarting the competition.
3. Use the active voice (most of the time)
Jeff Bezos founded Amazon in 1994. The previous 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 any business document ever written.” Bezos must have read King’s advice because passive sentences make up just 6.5% of the text in his shareholder letters.
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.
4. 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 “Earth’s biggest bookstore” just as the Amazon in South America is “Earth’s biggest river.”
Neuroscientists say that the human brain evolved to use metaphors to communicate and process the world around them. When we encounter something new, our brains kick into gear and search for familiar comparisons. Good communicators do the work for their readers and listeners, using metaphors as education instruments.
Bezos filled his letters with carefully-chosen metaphors to explain complex ideas. He introduced flywheels to propel growth, created two-pizza teams, and hired missionaries over mercenaries.
Aristotle once called metaphor a speaker’s “most formidable weapon,” and Bezos wielded it like a master.
5. Recognize that good writing takes time
In the summer of 2004, Bezos made a decision that rattled his leadership team. He banned PowerPoint. He replaced presentations with “narratively structured six-page memos.”
In his 2017 shareholder letter, Bezos explained that while the quality of written memos varies widely, some have “the clarity of angels singing.”
Writing is hard, and good writing takes time, Bezos explained. He said people mistakenly believe that a six-pager that meets high stands can be written in a day, or even a few hours.
“It really might take a week or more,” Bezos said. “The great memos are written and re-written, shared with colleagues who are asked to improve the work, set aside for a couple of days, and then edited again with a fresh mind. They simply 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 themselves when they evaluate job applicants.
- Will you admire this person? Bezos says he always tries to work with people he can learn from or look up to as an example of excellence.
- Will this person raise the effectiveness of the group? If you want to be successful in life or your career, hang around people who challenge you to be your best self.
- On what dimension will the person be a superstar? Spend your time around superstars who inspire you to aim higher than you’ve ever dreamed
7. Work backward to get ahead
Bezos challenged his executives to work backward from the customer’s perspective by writing a mock press release before building a product.
“Kindle is a good example of our fundamental approach,” Bezos wrote in 2008. More than four years before the introduction of the product, the Kindle team wrote a press release that read: “Every book, ever printed, 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 flush out all the benefits of the product to make sure that you’re really solving the customer problem.”
8. Maintain a “Day 1” culture
Beginning in 1998, Bezos attached a copy of his first letter with the reminder, “It’s always Day 1.”
Day 1 is not a thing — it’s a mindset that stands for obsessing over the customer, thinking long term, and bolding innovating to meet the customer’s needs.
Bezos revealed what “Day 2” looked like in 2016. Bezos wrote, “Day 2 is stasis. Followed by irrelevance. Followed by excruciating, painful decline. Followed by death. And that is why it is always Day 1.”
Jeff Bezos ran Amazon for 9,863 days, but he always showed up to work on day one. By referencing Day 1 with striking consistency, Bezos turned a metaphor from a figure of speech into a blueprint on how to think, act, and lead.
Carmine Gallo is a Harvard instructor and the author of The Bezos Blueprint.