On Presenting to Jeff Bezos

I’ve just stumbled upon an awesome personal story from Steve Yegge, who used to work at Amazon (he’s at Google now). In this post, he explains what it was like presenting to Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s CEO.

The first item of business that you should note: Jeff Bezos outlawed PowerPoint presentations at Amazon. As Yegge notes, “If you present to Jeff, you write it as prose.” I’ve bolded my favorite takeaways from Steve’s post:

To prepare a presentation for Jeff, first make damn sure you know everything there is to know about the subject. Then write a prose narrative explaining the problem and solution(s). Write it exactly the way you would write it for a leading professor or industry expert on the subject.

That is: assume he already knows everything about it. Assume he knows more than you do about it. Even if you have groundbreakingly original ideas in your material, just pretend it’s old hat for him. Write your prose in the succinct, direct, no-explanations way that you would write for a world-leading expert on the material.

You’re almost done. The last step before you’re ready to present to him is this: Delete every third paragraph.

Now you’re ready to present!

Back in the mid-1800s there was this famous-ish composer/pianist named Franz Liszt. He is widely thought to have been the greatest sight-reader who ever lived. He could sight-read anything you gave him, including crazy stuff not even written for piano, like opera scores. He was so staggeringly good at sight-reading that his brain was only fully engaged on the first run-through. After that he’d get bored and start embellishing with his own additions.

Bezos is so goddamned smart that you have to turn it into a game for him or he’ll be bored and annoyed with you. That was my first realization about him. Who knows how smart he was before he became a billionaire — let’s just assume it was “really frigging smart”, since he did build Amazon from scratch. But for years he’s had armies of people taking care of everything for him. He doesn’t have to do anything at all except dress himself in the morning and read presentations all day long. So he’s really, REALLY good at reading presentations. He’s like the Franz Liszt of sight-reading presentations.

So you have to start tearing out whole paragraphs, or even pages, to make it interesting for him. He will fill in the gaps himself without missing a beat. And his brain will have less time to get annoyed with the slow pace of your brain.

I mean, imagine what it would be like to start off as an incredibly smart person, arguably a first-class genius, and then somehow wind up in a situation where you have a general’s view of the industry battlefield for ten years. Not only do you have more time than anyone else, and access to more information than anyone else, you also have this long-term eagle-eye perspective that only a handful of people in the world enjoy.

In some sense you wouldn’t even be human anymore. People like Jeff are better regarded as hyper-intelligent aliens with a tangential interest in human affairs.

But how do you prepare a presentation for a giant-brained alien? Well, here’s my second realization: He will outsmart you. Knowing everything about your subject is only a first-line defense for you. It’s like armor that he’ll eat through in the first few minutes. He is going to have at least one deep insight about the subject, right there on the spot, and it’s going to make you look like a complete buffoon.

Trust me folks, I saw this happen time and again, for years. Jeff Bezos has all these incredibly intelligent, experienced domain experts surrounding him at huge meetings, and on a daily basis he thinks of shit that they never saw coming. It’s a guaranteed facepalm fest.

So I knew he was going to think of something that I hadn’t. I didn’t know what it might be, because I’d spent weeks trying to think of everything. I had reviewed the material with dozens of people. But it didn’t matter. I knew he was going to blindside me, because that’s what happens when you present to Jeff.

If you assume it’s coming, then it’s not going to catch you quite as off-guard.

And of course it happened. I forgot Data Mining. Wasn’t in the list. He asked me point-blank, very nicely: “Why aren’t Data Mining and Machine Learning in this list?” And I laughed right in his face, which sent a shock wave through the stone-faced jury of VPs who had been listening in silence, waiting for a cue from Jeff as to whether he was going to be happy or I was headed for the salt mines.

I laughed because I was delighted. He’d caught me with my pants down around my ankles, right in front of everyone, despite all my excruciating weeks of preparation. I had even deleted about a third of the exposition just to keep his giant brain busy, but it didn’t matter. He’d done it again, and I looked like a total ass-clown in front of everyone. It was frigging awesome.

So yeah, of course I couldn’t help laughing. And I said: “Yup, you got me. I don’t know why it’s not in there. It should be. I’m a dork. I’ll add it.” And he laughed, and we moved on, and everything was great. Even the VPs started smiling. It annoyed the hell out of me that they’d had to wait for a cue, but whatever. Life was good.

You have to understand: most people were scared around Bezos because they were waaaay too worried about trying to keep their jobs. People in high-level positions sometimes have a little too much personal self-esteem invested in their success. Can you imagine how annoying it must be for him to be around timid people all day long? But me — well, I thought I was going to get fired every single day. So fuck timid. Might as well aim high and go out in a ball of flame.

That last part about not being timid and just laying it out there is so, so good. Will more people at Amazon (or anyone else who reads Steve’s post) change their attitudes because of it?

3 thoughts on “On Presenting to Jeff Bezos

  1. Even if people believe they should lay it out there, put it on the line, take risks, and go for – they often don’t.

    We often have a gap between what we believe we should do and what we actually do.

  2. >Even if people believe they should lay it out there, put it on the line, take risks, and go for – they often don’t.

    I agree. Now, what would you say the number 1 deterrent is? Do you think it is fear?

    • I think there are various explanations and I don’t purport to know them all or understand any of them (but I enjoy thinking about the topics and sharing opinions). I would include fear, anxiety, lack of confidence (diffidence), complacency, caretaker responsibility compelling less risk taking (my failure won’t only hurt me). Also, we generally keep to our routines and our way of being. Even if we want to be different it is hard to break our own mold. We might want to take a risk, be willing to suffer whatever consequences; but we really don’t know how to do. We know how to be ‘the risk averse person’ we are. So how do would we take the next step to take risks – now that we are willing? Could we get some practice sessions with Jeff Bezos?

      If you want to be good at taking risks, you have to practice taking risks. And fail. And practice. And fail. At some point you have to succeed (reward) or the laws of behavior (behavior modification) are going to motivate you to stop taking risks because they don’t pay-out rewards for you (even though they pay rewards for others).

      Some people are just failure-aversive. And, as people get older, it tends to be harder for them to take risks. Why? It seems (in one sense) that it should be easier to take risks if one has maturity, financial security, and the wisdom that often comes with older-age.

      So, to answer your question directly, in some of these instances,I believe fear plays a small role. In some cases a big role (the number 1 role). But I think there is a lot more to ‘an answer’; I’m afraid the number 1 deterrent for some people is fear, but for others the number 1 deterrent is something else; and I’m afraid I might only be scratching the surface (and I can’t figure out why I’m itching).

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