The Bezos Blueprint: Communication Secrets of the World’s Greatest Salesman

From a Wall Street Journal review by Bill Heavey of the book by Carmine Gallo titled The Bezos Blueprint: Communication Secrets of the World’s Greatest Salesman”:

Ineffectual people like me are drawn to business books about successful people in the hope that some of their success will rub off on us. So we study Jeff Bezos and his ideas about leadership, or the tale of how Amazon grew from Mr. Bezos’s garage to an international empire. And, since it’s never too early to start your own little visionary on the road to world domination, there are even inspirational children’s books like “A Curious Boy Named Jeff.”

Carmine Gallo thinks we’ve been looking in the wrong place. In “The Bezos Blueprint: Communication Secrets of the World’s Greatest Salesman,” he argues that we should be focusing on the entrepreneur’s overlooked and underappreciated communication skills, which, Mr. Gallo tells us, will “unleash your potential,” creating “an unstoppable cycle of success.” Having kept a tight leash on my potential for too long, I felt like this book was written specifically for me.

Mr. Gallo maintains that Mr. Bezos’s annual shareholder letters offer particular insight. What’s more, until now, “no book has analyzed the forty-eight thousand words Bezos wrote over twenty-four years of shareholder letters.” Mr. Gallo delves into those words—48,062 of them, to be exact. He delves into those 2,481 sentences, which average 18.8 words each. He measures their readability using the Flesch-Kincaid scale, created in the 1940s, to show that the letters were written at a level an 11th-grader would understand. Eventually, Mr. Bezos whittled his writing down to even shorter sentences—16 words, instead of 18.8, with a readability score fit for an eighth-grader.

There’s a good reason we should value writing that’s easy to read, we’re told: “Our brains are not made to think.” You read that right. Mr. Gallo quotes the neuroscientist and author Lisa Feldman Barrett, who says that “your brain’s most important job is to control your body’s energy needs. In short, your brain’s most important job is not thinking.” This is one of the most reassuring sentences I have ever read.

We do a disservice to Mr. Bezos and ourselves to think his success is simply a matter of “hacks.” Success, we’re told, is also a mindset. At Amazon, for example, it’s always Day One. To Mr. Gallo, Day One is “a metaphor for creating and sustaining a culture of innovation no matter how large a company becomes.” It’s a continual search for ways to grow and learn. Then what, you may wonder, is Day Two like? Mr. Bezos himself tells us that Day Two is “stasis. Followed by irrelevance. Followed by excruciating, painful decline. Followed by death.” In short, Day Two is a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day that you never want to have.

Mr. Bezos’s commitment to narrative is so important that Mr. Gallo, who titled one chapter “Writing That Dazzles, Shines, and Sparkles,” chose a refreshingly hackneyed metaphor for it. “Narrative is to Amazon what an engine is to a Ferrari.” The point is not that a man writing about writing actually wrote that, but that Mr. Bezos believes in stories so passionately that in 2004 he banned the use of PowerPoint for senior executives.

Mr. Gallo is a smart fellow who waits until page two to share that he teaches in an advanced leadership program at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design. So when he says to start your sentences with subjects and verbs that pull the rest of the sentence along, you want to pay attention. But the order of your words is also crucial. “Many writing instructors suggest putting your strongest stuff at the beginning (the locomotive) and save an interesting word for the end (the caboose).” The weak stuff goes in the middle. A prime example Mr. Gallo cites is the famous line from Shakespeare’s popular hit “Macbeth” in which a messenger says “The Queen, my lord, is dead.” Shakespeare could have written, “The Queen is dead, my lord.” But he didn’t, because he knew that the sentence would be more powerful if he led with the locomotive and saved the shocker for the caboose. In the words of one writing expert, “Shakespeare stuck the landing.”

Whether you’re writing an article, document or email, says Mr. Gallo, you have 15 seconds—the time it takes to read 35 words—to grab a reader’s attention. After that, 45% of readers will stop paying close attention. While Mr. Gallo notes that the human attention span has remained the same since the 1800s, today there are more things competing for our attention. “The secret to catching a person’s attention is not to cut through the noise but to boost the signal.” I love this idea, but Mr. Gallo never explains it and I have no idea what it actually means.

He does, however, explain “loglines.” In the olden days, studio execs would write the title and a line about the movie on the spine—or log—of a script, and that became known as the logline. Writers pitching their stories thus learned to summarize their ideas in similarly brief terms. For “Finding Nemo,” according to Mr. Gallo, the logline is: “When his son is swept out to sea, an anxious clownfish embarks on a perilous journey across a treacherous ocean to bring him back.” Shonda Rhimes, the creator of “Grey’s Anatomy,” offered an even shorter logline. She pitched her show as “sex in the surgery.” If I had known this earlier, I definitely would have watched it.

Amazon is an enormous and complex enterprise that includes Amazon Prime, Amazon Web Services, Kindle, Fulfillment by Amazon and many other things. Faced with creating a logline for the company, Mr. Bezos used all of nine words: “Amazon’s mission is to be Earth’s most customer-centric company.”

I wanted this book to change my life, but maybe I’m one of those people whose potential—once it’s finally unleashed—floats away like exhaust from a stalled Ferrari on the racetrack of life. I’ve survived a lot of Day Twos in my time. You can come back from Day Two and still be moderately successful. Look at yourself, gentle reader. You’ve stayed with me this far. So maybe I stuck the landing, too.

Bill Heavey is a writer in Bethesda, Md.

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