White Papers At Amazon
How to write a professional business document the Amazon way, in the form of a six-pager, and why this is so important
Disclaimer: Please note this article is a collection of personal thoughts, stories, and recommendations. The content hereby written is related to my personal professional experience at Amazon and does not reflect in any way the position of the company I currently work for.
With this article on how to write a white paper, the Amazon way, I am sharing some techniques and personal recommendations that could help you create better business documents and make sure your meeting is efficient and on point. I hope you enjoy it.
Note. The ideal complement to this article is another one I wrote about how to write a press release (the Amazon way).
What is a white paper?
A white paper is an authoritative report or guide that informs readers concisely about a complex issue and presents the issuing body’s phylosophy on the matter. It is meant to help readers understand an issue, solve a problem, or make a decision.
According to Wikipedia, there are three main types of business white papers:
- Backgrounder: Describes the technical or business benefits of a certain vendor’s offering; either a product, service, or methodology. This type of white paper is best used to supplement a product launch, argue a business case, or support a technical evaluation at the bottom of the sales funnel
- Numbered list: Presents a set of tips, questions, or points about a certain business issue. This type is best used to get attention with new or provocative views, or cast aspersions on competitors
- Problem/solution: Recommends a new, improved solution to a nagging business problem. This type is best used to generate leads at the top of the sales funnel, build mind share, or inform and persuade stakeholders, building trust and credibility in the subject
Wikipedia also mentions that there several variations on the color theme exist. For example, a green paper would be a proposal or consultative document rather than being authoritative or final; a blue paper is used for technical specifications of a technology and a yellow paper would be a document containing research that has not yet been formally accepted or published in an academic journal.
Now that we know what a white paper is, let’s look at the characteristics and how to write a good one.
Style: it’s all about the narrative
I wrote tons of white papers during my time at Amazon. I wrote them to detail the characteristics of a project, like the launch of Made In Italy, or to inform about the roadmap and SOP (Standard Operating Procedure guide) on Item Data Quality and Browse taxonomy, or to integrate a press release document, but I also wrote them to regularly inform my Country Manager about the health status and progress of the program I was leading, Deals & Events.
Yet, I believe I have a long way to go. Writing a white paper requires skills and patience. I actually met a couple of guys at Amazon that blew me away. Their ability to explain the most complex concepts with a very clear structure , made me realize how powerful this tool can be. In the end, what they taught me is that it is all about the narrative. So, if you don’t have the time to read this article, the juice is well explained in the following extract:
Humans are prediction animals. We’re constantly working out what’s happening now, comparing it with our experience, and then predicting what might happen next, correcting ourselves when we’re off-course. We try to work out the causes and effects of all the things around us. Prediction helps us to act.
Prediction becomes much harder in large, complex systems like a company, especially one the size of Amazon. But Bezos’ executives still need to make decisions about the future, and so they marshal their own and their colleagues’ experiences and combine those with what’s provided in the six-page memo. With any luck, the memo draws out the causes and effects of what’s going on, the forces at play, and what other players might do — all so the decision-makers can predict what happens next and choose a course of action.
It turns out that these causal connections are best illustrated as a narrative.
Narrative shows a series of events, revealing how one impacts the next. […] The narrative becomes a container for what is happening and what might happen. […] Without the narrative, you just get a series of disconnected facts and opinions.
So the narrative is key. Also key is your audience. Who are you writing for? Defining who your audience is will surely help you focus on: (1) creating great content and (2) creating the right one. To understand better about audiences, let’s have a look at how a meeting is run at Amazon as a proxy.
How meetings are run at Amazon
Meetings at Amazon usually start in silence. Attendees sit around a table and start reading a document for approx 15–20 min. Then a discussion starts. According to Amazon standards, no team should be too large that cannot be fed with two pizza. It is called the two pizza rule. So, a team of twelve people is just about the right size to coordinate efficiently. You might see fewer people in the meeting of course, but that’s kind of the approach.
It takes a lot of effort to create a document with a good narrative. This printed document is shared with all the attendees. The presenter should set the stage with a letter background about the subject of the document, and any guidance about the goals of the meeting. The group then reads the document, makes notes and prepares for Q&A. Once everyone has finished reading, the attendees review the document page-by-page asking questions and offering comments. This meeting format, including the document narrative, was developed to provide a clear method of presenting information (a proposal, status update, or key data or metrics) and receiving feedback. The skill of document writing is important to master in order to be successful at Amazon. I back this up 100%. In fact, Jeff Bezos in several interviews publicly announced that at Amazon things are being done differently. Slides on PowerPoint are generally disliked as a tool for sharing information. You really want your audience to focus on what you are saying and clarify any doubt. Actually, with the release F.A.Q. you try to anticipate potential questions ahead of the meeting as much as possible, putting yourself in the shoes of the customer. In this case, the customer is your audience, your peers, colleagues and senior leaders attending the meeting and reading the business paper.
“When you have to write your ideas out in complete sentences, complete paragraphs it forces a deeper clarity.”
Why don’t you read the memos in advance?
“Time doesnt come from nowhere. This way you know everyone has the time. The author gets the nice warm feeling of seeing their hard work being read.”
“If you have a traditional ppt presentation, executives interrupt. If you read the whole 6 page memo, on page 2 you have a question but on on page 4 that question is answered.”
And so that is what we do, we just sit and read.
Working backward methodology & Writing at Amazon
- Work backward. The working backward process is about explaining the logic behind and achieving clarity or thought about what you are proposing, or what to create and launch. This is important as you need to place the customer first in your mind, allowing the reader to understand the impact of any proposed action on the customer, and makes you consider the big picture
Start with the customer, go backwards is the mantra!
- Create a summary. Start with your strongest points first and create an upfront summary of your recommendations. Not everyone gets the chance to read the entire document, so you can help them quickly understand your recommendation with a concise opening
- Six Pages. All documents at Amazon are limited to six pages or narrative with unlimited appendices. The reason for this is that it forces the writer to be concise and actionable with their narrative and moves the supporting analysis to the appendix
General Formatting Guidelines
- Title: Calibri is a good font to use. You could use a font size between 11 and 12 points, centered, bold
- Format: Single spaced (1.0pt), double-sided (always), Calibri 10-pt font (never narrower otherwise difficult to read), single space between sentences. Keep it simple
- Length: the main doc should be a maximum of 6 pages, with unlimited appendices, although I would not recommend going over 10–15 additional pages. All appendices must be relevant and cited in the body of the document with the exception of the first two appendices, which at Amazon tend to be Frequently Asked Questions followed by a Press Release. Just remember that the reader should find all essential information in the first six pages
- Footer: Page numbers & [Company name] Confidential
- Header: Descriptive title, date, and author
- Appendices: Appendix items flow in the same order as the references to them from the main doc
When developing content for a white paper, take inspiration from the following guidelines:
- Avoid: Clip art, colored pasted excel files, colored fonts, varied fonts (in text or in charts and data). Stay consistent and keep it simple. Do not distract the reader from unnecessary things. For that, there’s PowerPoint!
- Use Sparingly: Screenshots, customer experience mock-ups, or flow charts within a document to help contextualize or explain a problem or proposal. If you have a high number of screenshots, reconsider whether they are actually necessary. Shift to the appendices or remove
- Terminology: Use terminology consistent with the way your group looks at things from a finance, business or technical perspective. Consult your business partners and other stakeholders to make sure the terminology is clear
- Understand: The root cause or rationale behind each number you include in a document. For example, the exact source and timeframe of data and calculation methodology. Any assumptions that would not be known to a reader
Good tips for writing a good business document and lead a successful meeting
- For starters, please use common, plain language. Don’t overdo by using technical terms or fancy words. Simple is great. State the purpose and goals of your document at the beginning with extreme clarity. This will keep the entire room focused on the objectives during the time you will spend reviewing the work. (Ideally) state guiding tenets for a program or business area
- Explain your thought process in a logical order. Reveal your way of thinking from the problem to the solution to the reader. Build a story and do it in sequence
- State facts and avoid editorialization. Even if you measure a strong correlation between two patterns, until there is proven causation, do not assume that one causes the other. Observe trends and offer hypotheses — but let data speak
- Don’t add data for data's sake. Not all data helps to paint a picture or drive a decision, just because something took a long time to pull or model does not mean it should be included. I understand this is hard to resist. It happened to me several times. I spent hours or even days building a nice table on excel, but then I had to throw it all away as it fit the document purpose. As a tip, have it as ‘Supplemental’ in your back pocket, or print/send it as additional supporting figures if strictly necessary (it could be in a follow-up email). Usually, if there is no specific ask, there is no need to overload people with too much info, especially when unrequested
- Figure out where data should go: in the body add numbers pivotal to the analysis, or referenced in the main text; in the appendices, your interesting investigations that support the main overall theme of the document, but are not critical to the job
- Data is great, but you also need to show your ideas and opinions. Complement good analytical work by summarizing what actions (or next steps) you think we should take as a result of the data. Basically, move from insights to recommendations. Size the initiatives if possible. Always good to give the magnitude of each one. That helps to prioritize. Consider a few alternatives and present those as well. Acknowledge as well the limitations of your analysis and recommendations
- For each document, make a list of questions that a reader might ask. Answer them. Determine if those questions should be answered in the text, included in a F.A.Q. or handled verbally even anticipating what the others could say. Revise and repeat. But do not overdo it, tiger! Take it easy and let them catch a breath
- F.A.Q.s can be included in the appendix to answer questions that the internal audience might have. There are many different topics you could address, and you can include more than one F.A.Q.
- When developing a new feature, product, or service, include a press release in the appendix. Writing a press release clarifies how the world will see the product, and not just how we think about it internally. The goal of the press release is to describe (in a simple way) what the feature, product, or service does and why it exists for customers. It ensures that you are having the customer on top of your mind and you are truly working backward
- Review your document with multiple people. Ask finance, your peers but also someone outside your area of focus. What I am saying is that someone without any context about the problem should be able to understand the point and the implications of the document. If not, figure out why, and fix it!
That’s all! What do you think about these tips and recommendations? I am looking forward to hearing your opinions.
 Source: Wikipedia
- An example of official and public white paper: Amazon Web Services Overview