Amazon’s silent meetings introduce accountability, transparency and efficiency into the company’s communication. Here’s what you can learn from its approach.
If you had a dollar for every unnecessary, long-winded, ineffective meeting you sat in on, you’d likely have enough to retire early.
Research suggests we waste approximately 258 hours each year on unnecessary meetings, and they can be incredibly costly in terms of the productivity and engagement that are lost if they’re not run efficiently.
Efficiency is part and parcel of how work gets done at Amazon – from its fulfilment centres right through to those working in HQ. Its approach to meetings is no exception.
Years ago, its CEO, Jeff Bezos, introduced a practice known as ‘silent meetings’ and has since said this was probably “one of the smartest things [they] ever did”.
Bezos made the call to ban PowerPoint presentations in favour of a physical document (never more than six pages long) that’s read in silence during the first portion of the meeting time. This simple change has transformed the way Amazon employees meet for the better, and freed up more time to focus on the work that actually matters.
HRM spoke with Liz Jamieson CPHR, Recruitment Manager, Amazon Operations, APAC, about how silent meetings work.
Why so quiet?
The practice of silent meetings was new to Jamieson when she joined Amazon in 2019.
“I’ve worked in both private and public sector companies before, but I’ve never worked anywhere that’s had a document read built in as part of a meeting.
“[At previous organisations], I recall meetings where you jump in and expect people to have some level of understanding of the topic you’re about to discuss… But, if the team isn’t up to date, they ask questions like, ‘Can you start from the start and explain the project?’ By the time you get to the ‘ask’, there’s no time left and you have to schedule another meeting.”
Read HRM’s article on the psychology behind why we overload ourselves with meetings.
By baking reading time into meetings, Amazon can ensure everyone is on the same page from the get-go.
“There’s no wasted time on questions that half the people already know the answer to,” says Jamieson.
Spending 15-20 minutes reading documents at the start of a meeting might seem like a waste of time. Why not just get people to read a document before they attend the meeting so you can jump right into it? Well, they do this because a lot of people won’t come prepared, especially if they’re senior/influential in the business.
“You can’t cut corners… It trains you to be an analytical thinker.” – Liz Jamieson CPHR, Recruitment Manager, Amazon Operations, APAC
As Bezos says, executives often “bluff their way through a meeting” and pretend they’ve engaged in the pre-reading material. This isn’t necessarily their fault. Leaders are busy people and don’t always have time to digest materials before a meeting. However, they can easily derail the purpose of the meeting by commandeering the conversation with unnecessary information or perspectives.
“A junior executive comes in, they put a huge amount of effort into developing a PowerPoint presentation, they put the third slide up, and the most senior executive in the room has already interrupted them, thrown them off their game, asking questions about what is going to be presented in slide six,” Bezos said in an address at the Bush Center’s Forum on Leadership in 2018.
Silent meetings help everyone to start on an equal footing and facilitate more equitable conversations.
How to run a silent meeting
Amazon uses the silent meeting approach for preparing proposals, brainstorming sessions and business reviews.
“They can be past or future focused. It’s any type of meeting with a high-level overview,” says Jamieson.
“Not all meetings are silent. In my weekly team meetings, in talent acquisition, we rarely read a document. We just talk about our successes, highlights and lowlights. Then we talk about updates and specific topics. It’s obviously not practical for every meeting.”
But when they are necessary, there’s a specific process Amazon follows.
1. Set your intention for meeting
All silent meetings are hosted by a dedicated facilitator. This is usually the person who has prepared the document and is responsible for communicating the goal of the call and determining the outcomes/follow-ups.
“They’re leading us towards a goal based on the information in the document. They are timekeeping. They are the director of the conversation. They keep people on track and accountable.”
When you get invited to a silent meeting at Amazon, the invite will include information about your purpose in that meeting. You’ll know if you’re joining to analyse, share feedback, offer insights or ask questions.
The majority of the time, there is no pre-reading involved. However, in some instances, there might be a need to digest some information beforehand, but that will be clearly marked in the meeting invite.
2. Crafting the document
A lot of thought goes into the way Amazon’s documents are structured.
Being responsible for drafting a comprehensive document before gathering people to meet helps to avoid meeting for the sake of meeting and wasting people’s time.
“There’s a big deep dive time before you present anything to stakeholders. It makes you consider the crux of your idea and the purpose of a meeting. Your team’s name is on this document; people are going to read every word you wrote. It forces you to put a lot of thought into it and ensure you’re robust in your research and data-gathering. You can’t cut corners… It trains you to be an analytical thinker.
“We aim to write 1-6 page documents, and that can be in any format. It could be an FAQ doc, a narrative that’s seeking approval for a proposal, or a business review document.”
Writing an excellent meeting memo is considered a top skill at Amazon.
“We’ve got a template for document writing and document writing experts that we can tap into. It’s one of the things that the more senior people strive to be good at,” she says.
3. Digesting the document
The silent reading time is dependent on the length of the meeting. A good rule of thumb would be 2-3 minutes per page, says Jameison.
“Typically, we spend 10-15 minutes reading before the meeting. It’s dependent on the length of the meeting. If you’ve got a 30-minute meeting, you’re not going to spend half of it reading – perhaps more like a third.
“It will be determined by the facilitator. They’ll say, ‘Okay, we’re doc reading now’ and then drop the link in the chat so latecomers can see what we’re doing, then they’ll name the time that we’ll start the discussion portion of the meeting.”
4. Feeding into the document
Once the reading portion is over, anyone is welcome to share their perspectives.
“We start by taking any overall comments on the document itself. So someone might say, ‘The document is well-structured and it’s clear what we need to achieve today’ or ‘I think this document is lacking some key data, so let’s dive into that.'”
The feedback on the document itself is really important because, if it’s not already obvious, Amazon takes these documents really seriously.
“We also have document writing workshops and [access to] our own little library of experts and training materials.”
5. Analysing the information
After general comments, it’s time to do a detailed sweep of the information shared.
“We dive in line by line. We number each line of the document, so rather than having to say, ‘Earlier when you referenced…’ we can say, ‘On line 141, what does that datapoint reference?’
“[In traditional meetings] there can be lots of time wasted trying to understand each other’s point of view on something. We cut all those minutes out. It’s a very efficient process.”
This is a far more effective way to start conversations, says Jamieson, rather than presenting a bunch of information on a PowerPoint presentation and then relying on people to remember points you made 15 minutes earlier.
“They forget and so you end the presentation and ask for any questions and people [haven’t got anything to contribute]. With a pre-prepared document, it’s all there in front of them. You can’t lose your train of thought and they can make notes on their document.”
Learn how to sharpen your communication skills with AHRI’s Professional Writing Skills short course.
More inclusive communication
Not only does this work from an efficiency perspective, it also has great impacts from an inclusion point of view.
For example, if you’re working with a junior or introverted employee who isn’t comfortable speaking up immediately, they might benefit from knowing that there will be quiet time at the beginning to digest and prepare some thoughts – especially if it’s made clear to them that the facilitator wants to hear all perspectives.
Or perhaps they’re not a native English speaker, so being able to slowly read the information makes it easier to comprehend, rather than trying to keep up with a fast-talking presenter.
“We make use of the ‘raise your hand’ function on. If you’ve got something to say, you press this button and it puts you in a queue so [the facilitator] knows who is next to share their perspective. This means people’s perspectives aren’t getting lost in the conversation.
“It’s also great for neurodiverse people too,” says Jamieson. “Many people prefer reading versus listening to something.
“When [I attend a silent meeting], I know I’ll get completely up to speed, I will have all of my chances to ask the questions… and leave that call with the full understanding of the project. You can feel comfortable that everyone will be on the same page. It’s a really efficient, effective way of meeting.”
How do you make your meetings more efficient and inclusive? Let us know in the comment section.