Six-page narratives tackling our biggest challenges
5 min read

Six-page narratives tackling our biggest challenges

I'm using Jeff Bezos' six-page narrative format to pitch philanthropists and investors. The narratives are focused on tackling some of humanity's biggest challenges. Will networked thought and storytelling do enough to pique their interest?

For the past few months I’ve been thinking about how to persuade some of the top philanthropists, investors and thinkers to work on an idea alongside me.

These ideas aren’t focused on problems that I’ve typically tried to tackle in the past. They’re focused on some of the most significant problems facing the world today: carbon removal, longevity, artificial intelligence, biotech, battery technology... to name a few.

Why these challenges?

Now in my early thirties, I want to focus on what I believe are some of the biggest challenges facing the world today. Using everything that I’ve learned over the past decade of launching startups, building machine learning algorithms, and connecting with people that are much smarter than me.

Seeing initiatives such as the Earthshot Prize, Schmidt Futures, and Chamath’s ‘climate action’ call, I feel there’s never been a better time to focus on the biggest challenges we face as humanity.

Over the next few months I’ve set myself the challenge of scoping out a solution to these challenges that is worth exploring, then to partner with a domain expert, and start to raise funding.

So how should I go about building a compelling case?

Creating good ideas: clear thinking is clear writing

You might have seen my recent post on how I read every one of Amazon's shareholder letters.

I chose Amazon for a reason.

Founder & CEO, Jeff Bezos, is an excellent storyteller. His writing is concise, articulate and authentic. It's rare to find someone who can convey their thinking, mission and vision as articulately as Bezos can. And he places a high level of importance on the skill at Amazon.

Bezos has been able to instil, defend and evolve his company's thinking and behaviour for two decades, ever since its founding. The only ideas that can survive for that long are the ones that are packaged memorably enough -- and memorably packaging ideas in just a few choice words has long been one of Bezos' strengths.

One of the most important takeaways I found whilst reading through his shareholder letters was Amazon's use of 'six-page narratives', alongside their 'no PowerPoint' rule.

We don’t do PowerPoint (or any other slide-oriented) presentations at Amazon. Instead, we write narratively structured six-page memos. We silently read one at the beginning of each meeting in a kind of “study hall.” Not surprisingly, the quality of these memos varies widely. Some have the clarity of angels singing. They are brilliant and thoughtful and set up the meeting for high-quality discussion. Sometimes they come in at the other end of the spectrum.

Bezos goes onto explain what makes a good memo:

Here’s what we’ve figured out. Often, when a memo isn’t great, it’s not the writer’s inability to recognize the high standard, but instead a wrong expectation on scope: they mistakenly believe a high-standards, six-page memo can be written in one or two days or even a few hours, when really it might take a week or more! They’re trying to perfect a handstand in just two weeks, and we’re not coaching them right. 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. The key point here is that you can improve results through the simple act of teaching scope – that a great memo probably should take a week or more.

Writing these narratives, or stories, forces those at Amazon to think through their ideas in high-resolution detail. Instead of wasting time with impromptu brainstorming sessions, writing memos ensures that group discussion is based on the critical review of the relevant ideas, not on hypotheticals.

Most importantly, it makes it impossible to hide any logical inconsistencies in the ideas that people put out there. By imposing a rigorous, standardised template on the process of idea generation at Amazon, Jeff Bezos raises the bar and raises the quality of his team's thinking.

Stories have long been fundamental to the human experience

Stories are vivid, coherent and memorable – and are crucial to how we interact with the world. Although the term ‘story’ conjures images of fairy tales and myths, there is little that occurs in our lives around which we do not attempt to weave a narrative. Stories cater to our need for sense-making and our desire to observe causality. In one form or another, they underpin most human decisions.

One particular model of decision-making – explanation-based theory – emphasises that in certain conditions, individuals start their decision process by developing a causal model to explain the available evidence. To rationalise it, in other words, and put otherwise potentially abstract data into context. In this model, the story that has been created informs the ultimate decision as much as the standalone evidence.

Trial jurors are more likely to be persuaded by evidence if it is presented in the order of a logical story than if the same evidence is shown in random order. What’s more, the story each individual develops around the evidence will be unique and dependent on their own characteristics, beliefs and experience.

The juror example is useful when considering the role of narratives in investment decision making. Explanation-based theory is particularly applicable when decisions are large and complex, as investment decisions often tend to be. In fact, investment decision-making is a domain in which stories assume a particular importance in driving, informing and justifying conclusions.

There are two key reasons for this:

Complexity: narratives aid our comprehension There is intricacy and complication even in the simplest of investments, and if we start to consider the innovation and product proliferation that have come to define the industry, many investments can be fairly considered unfathomable. Stories are important in allowing investors to both simplify and justify decisions.

Uncertainty: startups, by definition, are risky. There are many things founders simply can’t plan for. Our surest means of coping with the discomfort is to manufacture meaning by forging a relationship between the data and an explanation – a story, in other words – of why the data is what it is and how it got that way.

Most investors won’t make a decision without it being supported by some form of story, and that’s understandable; stories are effective and can be very valuable. Now with the pandemic meaning in-person meetings are on hold, crafting a narrative -- with clear supporting evidence -- seems to be the best way for me to forge a connection with any potential investor.

Writing my own six-pagers

Using Amazon’s narrative format, I'm sharing some ‘six-pagers’ that will hopefully start to lay the foundations for the next chapter of my life.

If you’ve read this blog before, you’ll know I'm a fan of networked thought, using Obsidian on a daily basis.

They've just rolled out a new feature, Obsidian Publish; which, in essence, is a public notebook. I thought it would probably make most sense to share my own six-page narratives on there.

I'm still working on them as we speak, so you're getting a pretty raw insight into my thinking, as well as how I formulate or tackle problems.

I hope you’ll follow me as I start out on this new journey.

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