“We don’t do PowerPoint (or any other slide-oriented) presentations at Amazon. Instead, we write narratively structured six-page memos. When you have to write your ideas out in complete sentences and complete paragraphs, it forces a deeper clarity of thinking.” — Jeff Bezos
“I’ve come to believe that Stripe’s culture of writing is one of the organization’s greatest superpowers. As startup whisperer, patio11 puts it, “Stripe is a celebration of the written word which happens to be incorporated in the state of Delaware.””— Brie Wolfson
“One thing that distinguishes Stripe is that it’s an incredibly deep-thinking culture. It’s a written culture really focused on getting to the right answer.” - Michael Siliski
“A collaborative culture, reinforced by information flow, makes it possible for smart people all over a company to be in touch with each other. When you get a critical mass of high-IQ people working in concert, the energy level shoots way up. Knowledge management is a fancy term for a simple idea. You’re managing data, documents and people’s efforts. Your aim should be to enhance the way people work together, share ideas, sometimes wrangle and build on one another’s ideas–and then act in concert for a common purpose.” — Bill Gates
Some of the best companies in the world today have a common cultural character: they almost all have a culture of writing as a primary mode of communication, presenting ideas, and collaboration. They put everything in writing. You want to present an idea, come up with a written document, and then present it. You want to launch a new product, write a demo press release first. You want to hire, write down a detailed job description first and then go, hire.
I think this is not by accident but by design. And using writing as a core component of how you communicate and operate as a company has a ton of upsides.
There are many companies that are well-known for their writing-heavy cultures. Amazon comes to mind. The company is famous for its Amazon FAQ. Stripe comes to mind. Basecamp comes to mind.
Google, Facebook, and many other tech giants can be put into this group of companies. And it is fascinating to see how these companies have actively tried to reinforce writing things down as a key ingredient of their culture.
I have been thinking about why this is the case. A couple of reasons come to my mind.
Communication: Writing is the best medium of communication. There are several aspects to this. Written communication is simply more effective and easy to share with other people. When you write something down, it is usually clearer. You think through it.
Second, in many instances, verbal communication is hard to get across. The key message can get lost in translation. Verbal communication also involves a lot of emotional and psychological cues. Written communication, contrary to that, does not suffer from these limitations. You can tell things that you wouldn't otherwise tell someone directly. You can ask questions if you don't understand something. It doesn't involve ego. It also makes it easier for people who are introverted or don’t feel comfortable talking to a group to share their ideas and participate without fear.
Clarity: If you want to check your understanding of something, try writing a few hundred words on it. Writing helps you clarify your thoughts. When we think something and when we verbalize it, it is usually half-baked. We have no way to understand the thought clearly. When we put that thought into writing, it allows us to see the inconsistencies and use our own feedback to improve it.
Sharing knowledge: One of the key limitations of verbal communication is that it is hard to preserve. Of course, if you are recording an audio/video, that’s a different matter. Even then you would need to write your ideas down. When you write things down, it is easier to preserve the knowledge and share it with other people.
Efficient: Verbal communication is inefficient. You lose information. There are chances of misunderstanding. It also takes longer for everyone to listen and discuss something. Written communication, compared to that, is far more efficient. You can review a written document asynchronously. You can preserve it for future reference. When you write things down, it is much clearer. It means it will save time for everyone. Moreover, written communication means everyone will be able to give feedback and help enrich the whole thing.
Creates a culture of thoughtfulness and thinking things through: When everyone is writing, it is a different culture where people take their ideas seriously, think through them, respect the time of others, and read them as well. It can change the entire orientation of a company.
Amazon’s example, one of the most iconic companies in the world today, is pertinent here. Jeff Bezos has created an unusual practice in his company from the very early days. Every single idea has to be written down as a brief memo. If you want to launch a product, you have to write a press release first which is also known as Amazon FAQ. During meetings, everyone sits quietly and reads the memo before talking about it. This led to a culture where people put their minds to work. They think about ideas and consider the ideas of others and offer thoughtful feedback.
Personal productivity: Writing as a practice is an excellent personal productivity hack. It helps you to untangle your own thoughts. You can bring more clarity to your ideas. Writing something down allows you to release anxiety and see a problem more clearly. You can untangle things in writing which is not possible when you are merely thinking about it.
Most of the time, the source of our anxiety is our inability to see things clearly. When we can see something in sequence, we can finally manage to overcome it and see a path through it.
We live in a fast-paced world. We are almost always busy. It creates a poverty of deep thinking and attention. Writing switches the mode and turns us more introspective and thoughtful. You can still move fast and break things but you are more deliberate and thoughtful in doing that.
The other important trend is the rise of remote work. In the world of remote, written communication is a first-class citizen and it is the best mode of collaboration.
Given all these reasons and examples, it is only logical that you aim to build a writing company because it is worth it. But how do you approach it? Is there any formula for it?
Humans learn through imitation: The first step I think would be for senior leaders to demonstrate that writing is important by doing it themselves.
From this: “The first emails I saw from our CEO [Patrick Collison] literally had footnotes,” Nunez recalls. “He structured his emails to be like research papers and put the peripheral information at the bottom so as not to detract from the core information.”
It should be made clear to everyone in the company that writing matters and is important. Without a commitment from the leadership, it’ll be hard to expect it from the people down the ladder.
Encourage written communication than verbal communication.
Make writing a default method for sharing knowledge and communication: As Jeff Bezos did, make writing a default method for communication.
Create SoPs and samples: Give people who are new sample docs and SoPs, to begin with. I have found it super useful when you write down processes. It helps you to organize things and get things done properly.
Have standardized systems but be open as well: Amazon has Amazon FAQ/PR and it follows a standard framework. While having a structure and standardized systems are useful, they can sometimes limit things for people. So maintain flexibility as well. Have structure but make them flexible so that it allows people to participate and do things.
These are some ideas that you may try to build a culture of written communication and collaboration in your organization. The most important aspect of this is setting an example. You have to lead by example.
Building a culture takes time. You learn things by doing them. You make mistakes. You find out challenges. It then leads to learning and understanding. So the most important thing of all is getting started and learning by doing. Create an environment where people support each other and are allowed to make mistakes. Once you start doing it, put it in writing and share.
Originally published on 31 January 2023. Updated on 24 September 2023