Counting Calculi

The Pen is Mightier Than The Presentation

Want to make your employees think? Assign them essays.

by Kevin McLaughlin

Imagine that you’re a CEO delegating tasks to your employees. What form do you expect the deliverables of these tasks to take? For a budget you probably expect an Excel file, software features, of course, can be written in code, and marketing materials can take the form of a website. But what about abstract things like strategy shifts, new product initiatives, or process overhauls? Because these tasks are abstract, they’re difficult to put into a deliverable form. As such, they often end up in flowcharts, or worse, presentations to be ignored in morning meetings. But how about requiring your employees to write their thoughts down in prose-form essays as Amazon does?r1

Written essays may terrify you and your employees as they conjure up images of your tenth grade English teacher hounding you about finishing a sentence with a preposition. If so, fear not, your tenth grade English teacher was wrong about this particular rule of grammar. (As is Grammarly) But if he told you that good writing takes time, or that concise prose is the best way to communicate ideas, or that you have to think clearly to write clearly, then he was right. For these reasons, you should require your employees to write their ideas down as essays as I shall argue here.

Now, suppose you do ask your product manager to write her idea for a new feature in a six-page essay. Probably the first complaint you’ll hear is “but that will take me forever!”. To which I say “good”. First, consider the arrogance of this statement. A new product will likely take years to develop. The product manager should spend more than 15 minutes thinking about it. She should take the day or two required to write a clear, six-page essay on something that they want the company to spend millions of dollars and potentially years of effort on. 1

Requiring long-form essays helps us self-filter our good ideas. You will not be able to write a six-page paper about every one of these ideas so essay-writing forces you to pick the best ones instead of setting your team to a new strategic initiative every week. Last week I touched on this problem in my discussion of the Strategy Trap, but it’s articulated by the authors of The 4 Disciplines of Execution as well - “The more you try to do, the less you actually accomplish.” As such, you should focus on “wildly important goals”. r3 Writing essays helps you do that.

Furthermore, writing long-form essays is good for the mind of your product manager. 2 Cal Newport in his book Deep Work details how regularly taking the time to retreat into solitude and work deeply on a problem helps us develop and maintain the essential skills of concentration and deep thinking, and even makes us happier and healthier people. In the world of Slack messages, constant emails, and open offices, giving your employees (and yourself) the time to focus on hard tasks is essential to maintaining their ability to work through cognitively difficult problems.

Okay so maybe you’re convinced that taking the time to think about things is important. But that doesn’t answer why long-form essays should be your default form for deliverables. Why not just require longer discussions or more detailed presentations or more in-depth flow charts? Because writing is still the best method we’ve found for broadcasting complex ideas across space and time from one brain sitting in its own skull to many others sitting in theirs.

Consider some alternatives. Discussing a new strategy with your colleagues is a great way to communicate. Discussions can happen quickly and informally. And if your colleague doesn’t understand what you just said, then they can simply ask you right then and there for clarification. But discussions can only take place from person to person or maybe amongst three or four people before they become a presentation; more on this in a moment. Nor can they be transmitted across time and handed down to future employees as training manuals or serve as a record of the history of the company’s thinking.

Presentations, it’s true, can be broadcasted from one person to many. But they require that the people listening to the presentation actually be paying attention at that moment. A written essay, by contrast, can be picked up when the person receiving the message is good and ready after they’ve had their cup of coffee. Of course, presentations can be recorded. But it’s easy to get distracted while watching a presentation because it does not take the same mental effort as reading. It’s harder to zone out while moving your eyes across a page and even if you do so, it’s much easier to go back and review what you’ve missed.

Flow charts, bullet points, listicles and other outlines, of course, can be delivered across space and time just like an essay. But it’s difficult to point out caveats or explain your reasoning in outlines. In essays, it’s easy to point out when a statement doesn’t apply and explain why it does in this case but not that.

All of these reasons show why - despite the ease with which we can, using modern technology, create complex diagrams, graphs and charts that conveniently fit in presentations and connect with people across space and time - we still communicate in written prose. As demonstrated by the fact that you are reading this. If that’s not convincing, give The Everything Store a read to see why Jeff Bezos begins all of his meetings by making everybody, including himself, read the essays that he requires of his employees.

Supreme Court Justices have a great phrase. They say an opinion “won’t write”.r4 What that means is that the Justice, after listening to all the evidence and hearing arguments and counter-arguments, has worked out the position they’d like to take on the case. Then they sit down to write their opinion - but can’t. Why? Because when they try to write their opinion, they realize they can’t find sufficient justification for it. This demonstrates the greatest power of writing and brings us to our final and most important point - clear writing requires clear and critical thinking.

This is what Bezos means when he says that it’s easy to hide in presentations but not essays.r5 Presentations and all forms of verbal communication are obviously effective. But they don’t rely as heavily on logic and clarity as writing because the first to speak can unintentionally deceive us into groupthink, or we can the overawed by the charisma of the speaker. Of course, good writers can deceive us, but it’s harder in written prose because your ape brain isn’t impressed with the height of the man standing in front of you.

So what it is it about writing that requires good thinking? First, the rules of grammar and syntax are inherently, but not purely, logical and designed to connect one idea to another. But more importantly, writing is an exercise in cognitive empathy. To be able to communicate our ideas to someone who’s not standing in front of us, asking follow up questions requires that we take the place of our imagined reader in our mind’s eye; that we understand what they already know and don’t know. Furthermore, it requires that we take the place of someone who doesn’t already agree with us; that we address their level of understanding and concerns and anticipate their counterpoints. Doing so helps us to reduce our own biases and reveal the flaws in our thinking.

The written word is still the most powerful technology we humans have ever invented. Throughout its history, it has: broken down monolithic religions, made it possible for a band of rebels to defeat the mightiest empire the world had ever seen, inspired a country to purge itself of the evil that is slavery, and introduced us explore the wonders of our universe. As such, you might consider taking up your pen when you next redesign your company’s standard operating procedure.

1. See, you CAN end a sentence with a preposition. This is just a dumb rule that some guy made up based on a false analogy with Latin to prove that he was a better poet than his rival. Literally. Like literally literally. Not hyperbolically literally.r2 ^

2. and yours. ^

r1. Brad Stone, The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon, Page 9. Kindle Location: 120 ^

r2. Steven Pinker, The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century, Kindle Location: 3685 ^

r3. Cal Newport, Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, Kindle Location: 1477 ^

r4. Frederick Schauer, Thinking Like a Lawyer, Kindle Location: 972 ^

r5. Brad Stone, The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon, Page 175. Kindle Location: 2534 ^