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There are many secrets to Jeff Bezos’s success. But one you can apply in your job – whatever your level in the organization – is that he writes and speaks in plain language.

Carmine Gallo, who has chronicled the communications habits of top leaders, found that although Mr. Bezos graduated from Princeton University in electrical engineering and computer science and considered being an astrophysicist, his communications tend to be written for a person with a high school education. Indeed, his famed commencement speech to the 2010 graduating class at that university – surely a time to display erudite touches – registered a readability score of Grade 7 on the standard Flesch-Kincaid scale, indicating it was likely to be understood by someone at age 12. “Bezos delivered a profound message in simple language, making it an instant hit,” Mr. Gallo writes in his book The Bezos Blueprint, noting National Public Radio called it the best commencement speech ever.

But the pattern applied beyond that one speech. Mr. Gallo analyzed the 24 annual letters to shareholders Amazon’s CEO sent from 1997 to 2020. They came in at a Grade 11 level. “It is an impressive feat for someone to write 48,000 words in language that the average high-school student can read and understand, especially when you consider that he covers arcane financial topics such as free cash flow, generally accepted accounting principles (GAAAP) and pro-forma income. He also writes about highly technical topics like data mining, artificial intelligence, and machine learning years before those terms entered the business lexicon,” Mr. Gallo observes.

Interestingly, he became better over time. As Amazon grew bigger, the letters became longer. But the average sentence length shrank from 1997 to 2020 by about four words and the years of education required to read the letters fell by two grades. Mr. Bezos was making it easier for readers and thus increasing the likelihood of being read and understood. It’s a path worth following.

A good way to start, Mr. Gallo points out, is by borrowing a technique from another legendary CEO, Warren Buffett of Berkshire Hathaway. To keep his writing simple, he begins his annual shareholder letters, “Dear Doris and Bertie,” addressing his sisters and keeping them in mind as he composes. They are smart women, but not active in business; he pretends they have been away for a year and he is reporting on their investments. When he is satisfied they will understand, he substitutes this salutation: “To the shareholders of Berkshire Hathaway.”

Focus on using short words. In particular, Mr. Gallo recommends “short words to talk about hard things, a crisis, a complex idea or a big idea that you want listeners to remember.” Winston Churchill, in a Second World War memo titled “Brevity,” warned government administrators to replace “woolly phrases” with single words that were more conversational. When Mr. Bezos first explained the concept of the Kindle e-book Reader to shareholders, 92 per cent of his words were one or two syllables. During the pandemic, we were told: “Stay home, wear a mask, and wash your hands.”

In a collection of C.S. Lewis essays, On Writing and Writers, he warned to always prefer the plain direct word to the long vague one. “Don’t implement promises, but keep them,” he cited in a handy example for today’s executives. He also advised not to use words too big for the subject, such as “infinitely” when you mean “very.” It takes away the opportunity to describe something that truly is infinite.

Mr. Gallo recommends aphorism, analogies and metaphors to get across powerful notions in a simple way. Aphorisms like “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” or “move fast and break things” compress big ideas into a handful of words. Warren Buffett used this metaphor to explain his investing philosophy to a shareholder at an annual meeting: “The most important thing we do is find a business with a wide and long-lasting moat around it, protecting a terrific economic castle with an honest lord in charge of the castle.”

But be careful with jargon. Ann Handley, a principal with the MarketingProfs training company, uses an analogy to make that point in her book Everybody Writes: Jargon is like cholesterol – there’s a good kind and a bad kind. The good kind indicates belonging and allows easy sharing. The bad kind is a lazy shorthand and creates a barrier in selling to consumers unfamiliar with the jargon.

I still remember Royal Bank chief executive officer W. Earle McLaughlin telling my fellow university business students that he didn’t want to read mysteries at work – he wanted the key message communicated at the start. These days are known as BLUF (bottom line up front). Mr. Gallo says studies show you have 15 seconds to grab a reader’s attention in an e-mail, document or article. Remember bottom line up front.

Ms. Handley stresses that we are all writers these days. Unclear writing will create havoc, so you must build good writing habits. “We are all capable of producing good writing. We all have the magic within us,” she says.


  • With all the attention being given to ChatGPT and its promise for writing, MarketingProfs principal Ann Handley warns on her blog that it’s a trap. “Writing is a full-body contact sport. You need to participate fully. Your brain. Your hands. Your personality. Your voice. All of it …. The way to use AI is as a gymnast using a spotter and a coach – a way to help you create with more confidence. Even fearlessly. Yet it’s your talent that drives AI. You are the gymnast!”
  • The best question is the second question, claims executive coach Dan Rockwell. Use the answer from your first question to explore more deeply: “Could you say more than that?” Or: “That seems important to you. What’s important about that to you?” Or: “What are three options and which one do you want to try?”
  • In this tough recruiting market, a team of academics and consultants writing in Harvard Business Review recommend seeking candidates who match 70 to 80 per cent of the most critical skills for the role, and then developing learning curricula to equip them with the remainder.

Harvey Schachter is a Kingston-based writer specializing in management issues. He, along with Sheelagh Whittaker, former CEO of both EDS Canada and Cancom, are the authors of When Harvey Didn’t Meet Sheelagh: Emails on Leadership.