How to write a business narrative which will impress Bezos

“There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” ― Ernest Hemingway

But then, we are not talking about writing like Hemingway or Nabokov or Alice Munro. You have come up with a project. You are sure it’s a winner. You work at a company like Amazon and to take it forward you have to first write about it in a 4-6 page narrative. This document will serve as the pivot for all discussions about the project, something that your colleagues and bosses can read with ease and grasp the ideas you are putting forth.

What are We Looking At?

First things first, we must be in tune with Jeff Bezos’ recommendation. “Writing a good 4-page memo is harder than “writing” a 20-page Powerpoint … the narrative structure of a good memo forces better thought and better understanding of what’s more important than what, and how, things are related.” Powerpoint presentations are banned at Amazon. Meetings, when needed, have to be structured around a pre-prepared, carefully thought out, flowing narrative.

Who, Me?

The prospect of writing a business narrative is daunting to most of us. We baulk at the act because we have never received training for it. Writing with clarity and flow is hard work. Even Hemingway viewed it with trepidation.

Yes, You

Most narratives, business or fiction, have a typical structure. Once we get familiar with this simple scaffolding, the process of writing becomes natural and effortless. Let’s look at a 4-step method of producing a business narrative that even Jeff will smile at.

Step 1: Where are We Now?

As Julie Andrews sang, “Let’s start at the very beginning.” What was it that provided the original impetus or spark for putting forward this proposal? Write about it in simple words. The starting point could be one or more of many things. Maybe it was:

  • Pain points: Write about whatever produced discomfort in your present situation: things that make you uncomfortable, wary, anxious, frightened or angry.
  • Dangers ahead: There may be lurking threats to the organisation which you feel need prompt and proper handling.
  • Opportunities: Maybe it’s about things that present a lucrative prospect and could be harnessed for the good of the company. Describe it.
  • Innovations: In a rapidly changing business world, it may be that you feel the present set up does not encourage new ideas. To survive, you sense that innovation has to be nurtured.
  • Competition: Today’s world is brutally competitive. You know that other groups are sniffing at your heels. We have to start moving faster and farther than them

The number of starting points are limitless but you will have a single, specific item. Identify it and write in detail about it.

Step2: Where are We Headed?

If you don’t know where you are going, one thing is certain: you won’t get there. Describe your goal and ambition. There are many frameworks for outlining this section. A popular one is the “SMART” mnemonic:

S = specific – be clear about what you want.

M = measurable – assess results by objective means.

A = assignable – allocate specific people for specific tasks.

R = realistic – stay within your ways and means — don’t over reach.

T = time bound – be hard nosed about deadlines.

Step3: The road map

We live in the age of Google maps. You wouldn’t stir out anywhere new without first getting a road map. Your narrative must talk of three things.

  • The various steps that need to be taken to get to the goal.
  • The time limit and deadlines for each step.
  • Obstacles that are likely to pop up en route and your plans for working around or over them. Anticipate road blocks.

Step 4: What will it Look Like when You are There?

“Are we there yet?” — the constant refrain of children on a road trip applies to your narrative as well. Don’t just go with gut feelings. Refer back to the stated goals and make sure that you have reached every one of them. Take a hard look.

  • Use objective methods of assessment.
  • List the benefits and joys of having reached your destination.
  • Pitch it against the list that started your journey.

Not Just for Business Narratives — be an Ace Speaker

Storytelling is a sure-fire way to capture attention. Anytime you need to make a presentation, convert it into a story and you will hold your audience during your talk. The framework that we just saw can be used to rephrase an idea into a narrative. With a little imagination, a boring sermon can be transformed into a tale of how the idea was born, its goals, the path to implementation and the view from the top. Like the ad says: “Just do it.”

Clever Tip

You don’t have to use the steps in the order listed. You can play around with it for dramatic effect. For instance, you could open with a vision of what the end looks like, shift to the reason for starting the journey, talk about the road and end with what your goals were. Play around with the four steps and see which order suits the spirit of the narrative

Come Back to Papa Hemingway

You don’t need a vast vocabulary or a smart turn of phrase to write well. Hemingway said this when putting down Faulkner: “Does he really think big emotions come from big words? He thinks I don’t know the ten-dollar words. I know them all right. But there are older and simpler and better words, and those are the ones I use.”

Write from the heart. Focus on:

  • Simple language.
  • Short sentences.
  • Brief paragraphs — each one containing one idea, each paragraph flowing logically into the next.
  • Anticipating objections and addressing them ahead of time.
  • Redrafting your manuscript many times. Be a ruthless critic of your writing, logic and flow. Every word must have a reason to be there.

Writing well is the best way of thinking well. Which is why anything written is given far more value than spoken words. Penned sentences linger as a legacy of a human being, sometimes well beyond the life of the person who wrote them. To disseminate great ideas, you need to write captivating stories. 

“After nourishment, shelter and companionship, stories are the thing we need most in the world.” ― Philip Pullman


Dr Arjun Rajagopalan

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Every job application must include a covering letter

A carefully-crafted resume is the keystone of a job application. A large number of employers will also ask for a covering letter. Most, often, you will use a standard template: a few lines dashed off thoughtlessly.

Why Bother With a Covering Letter?

Giving a lot of time and attention to the covering letter might appear old-fashioned in an age when applications are submitted online. Still, a well-written document can make you stand out amongst a crowd of applicants.

The covering letter is a single-page letter of introduction — yourself, to the hiring manager. It is a carefully-crafted argument for why you are the best person for the job.

Remember, applications are scanned for specific keywords, phrases and qualifications, often by apps and bots, before being passed on for review by humans.

When Do You Send A Covering Letter? Always.

Quite often, a covering letter may not be mandatory. Don’t take this as an opportunity to slip out. Always send one.

No Templates, be Creative

Although you can recycle some portions of the letter, the bulk of the message should be one-of-a-kind, targeted at the company and the job you are applying for. Resist the temptation to automate the document.

Use this outline for writing your letter.

Begin with the usual salutation, a name preferably, or the designation of the person doing the hiring. Increasingly, there is a tendency to be informal: a “Hi” or a “Hello” rather than the “Dear …”. Judge the nature of the organisation before you decide. If it’s a young, start-up, open to fresh ideas, stay informal. If it’s a well-established company, then a more traditional style of address.

STEP 1: Start with Them, Not Yourself.

It’s customary to start by talking about yourself. Don’t. Your resume will do that. Do some research on the organisation and learn what their mission/ vision is. Point out how your ambition fits with theirs. Keep the tone enthusiastic but not over-powering. As the Taoist saying goes, pointed, not piercing.

STEP 2: Talk About the Job and How You Fit the Description

Show that you have understood the nature of the job and the specific requirements of you. Describe how your skills suit the position. How do they solve a problem or address a pain point for the company?

Many a time, tucked somewhere in the body will be a question or task assigned to you. The employer uses this as a check to see if you have scrutinised the application well. Make sure you respond and highlight your response.

STEP 3: Close With a Call-to-Action

The last paragraph should be a single-line recap of the company, the job and your fitness for the position. Give a contact number or email address, even if it’s there in the resume.

Keep It …

  • Short – not more than 2 or 3 sentence per paragraph.
  • Clear.
  • Succinct – don’t use grandiose or flowery language.
  • Neutral in tone – don’t be fawning, effusive or stiff.

And Don’t Forget to …

  • Spell check, grammar check, obsessively. Nothing negatively portrays you as much as a sloppily-written document, full of spelling mistakes and poor grammar.

There’s no question that the resume is the make-or-break factor in your application. Remember though that an outstanding covering letter could deliver the tipping force to your effort at getting a job.

Looking for work can be very disheartening. Finding your perfect job takes a lot of courage, persistence and ingenuity. Steve Jobs said:

“If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle. As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it. And, like any great relationship, it just gets better and better as the years roll on.” ― Steve Jobs


Dr Arjun Rajagopalan

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Personal journals: a cheaper and more effective alternative to psychotherapy

Albert Einstein, Mark Twain, Marie Curie, Nelson Mandela, Thomas Edison, Virginia Woolf, “Che” Guevara, Anne Frank, Leonardo da Vinci: a list of famous people with a diverse range of interests. What did they all have in common? They maintained personal journals through their lifetimes.

Who’s Got the Time to Write Daily?

First, a popular myth has to be dispelled. Journal writing need not be an unremitting, daily effort. The association of journaling with conventional diaries, segmented by days, is, most likely, the reason for this misconception. Daily journaling quickly becomes a chore that is easy to give up.

Instead, only record what you want to remember. Make it an exercise in capturing and archiving thoughts, emotions and ideas coming from within you. Write about interesting people, conversations, meetings, books, lectures, places — anything that captures your attention. Over time, the collection will become a resource that will act as a secure helmsman to steer you through the turbulence of life.

It’s best to keep it as a private record although, we are so much richer for many of them having been published. Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl is the most well known example of the power of a journal. There are many more.

Why Should You Keep a Journal?

Journaling should be a collection of ideas rather than a chronological log of quotidian events. Putting your thoughts down on paper (or as digital bits if you prefer) unburdens your memory, a notoriously fallible storehouse. Journal writing is a powerful productivity and self-improvement tool.

There are numerous benefits to keeping a journal.

  • Problem solving: Writing is a tool for thinking clearly. The effort of transforming what’s in our heads as disjointed notions into words clarifies ideas and concepts. Spending fifteen to thirty minutes in this effort allows you to see the problem in distinct, easily grasped pieces. Organising them and making sense out of the puzzle becomes an easier task.
  • Decision diary: Get into the habit of making entries for the more significant decisions you make in your life. Put down brief statements about the following items:

— The nature of the situation that needs a resolution.

— A list of the possible routes of action.

— The pros and cons of each of them.

— Your choice and why you did so.

— What tradeoffs did you have to make?

— What do you expect from this selection?

As the diary grows, review your entries now and then. You will get a good insight into your decision-making process.

  • Stress reduction: Studies have shown that regular writing reduces stress. Anxiety and depression can be alleviated to remarkable degrees by expressive writing and pouring out deep emotions.
  • Physical ailments: The benefits are not limited to behavioural problems. Many common disorders manifesting with pain and limitation of daily activities can respond to a simple recording of symptoms and feelings. Recognising pain and discomfort as something distinct and reportable goes a long way to augment healing processes within yourself.
  • Gratitude journal: Regardless of how bad things look, there are still so many others which are going right for you. You don’t have to be a Pollyanna;there is much to be grateful for. Write them down in your journal. The effects on your overall wellbeing can be substantial.
  • Self-discipline: Regularity in writing is an act of self-discipline and will power. It builds up resilience in all other aspects of your daily life.

Despite its popularity, there’s ample evidence that undergoing therapy with a trained analyst may be no more beneficial than talking to someone, even a friendly bartender. A well-nurtured personal journal is all you need. The list of winners at the head of this article, and many more, is proof.

How Do I Go About It?

The straight answer: Use whichever method or tool works for you.

It’s best to keep the process as simple and handy as you can: from just a notebook (a Moleskin, if you wish) to drawing, sketching, mind-mapping, visual thinking, photos, voice recording or any of the dozens of digital tools that are available for the purpose.

Apps like Evernote or Bear are fantastic for the ways and means by which you can organise and manipulate your entries. There are apps like Journal One which are specifically designed for the purpose.

The trick is consistency. Stick with whatever gives you the most value for the effort.

How Often Should I Review My Journal?

Once again, there is no hard and fast rule. Whenever you do look back, chose a time when you are calm, rested and still. Although there is a huge temptation to look when times are turbulent, you may not get the most out of your writing at these moments. Nevertheless, let your intuition direct you.

You must let your journal be a guiding lamp in your progress through life. No one can know and understand you better than yourself. It’s not unusual to be taken by surprise at the profound nature of your observations.

Stephen King Says

“Writing isn’t about making money, getting famous, getting dates, getting laid, or making friends. In the end, it’s about enriching … your own life, as well. It’s about getting up, getting well, and getting over. Getting happy, okay? Getting happy.” ― Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft


Dr Arjun Rajagopalan

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The secret to making good decisions lies in weighing the trade-offs

“You can watch a movie on TV tonight, or you can go to your friend’s house for a sleepover on Saturday. You choose.” And, over the years … do I take this smaller university where I get a generous scholarship or do I opt for the prestigious one which will mean steep fees? You are now an adult with a job. Do I continue at this safe but boring job, or do I quit and join the exciting startup that wants me?

Decisions, decisions!

We make thousands of decisions every day. Most of them hardly reach our consciousness. When they do, decision making often poses a dilemma. You want something, but you have to give up something else: a tradeoff. Some other benefit or opportunity is at stake — the opportunity cos t of your decision.

Yin and Yang

In our lives, there are a few everyday ingredients that require tradeoffs. Here are a few.

  • Time: As we grow in our professions, time becomes a scarce commodity. Many decisions have to be made based on how much time is available. Time spent on the opportunity will inevitably mean that there is less for something else. Stay longer in the office and miss out on your child’s appearance in a school play.
  • Accountability: The more number of people and projects you are in charge, the higher the demand on your mind share. Stress levels zoom up.
  • Opportunity: New horizons mean risks. The opening might be exciting, but your steady paycheck may disappear.
  • People: The role and salary at a new job may be fantastic, but your present boss is a joy and delight to work with. Moving to the other company might mean dealing with the prospect of an unfriendly superior. Relationships are an essential part of job satisfaction.
  • Brand identity: It feels good to mention the name of a well-known firm as your employer, but the competition and lack of personal touch could be a downer. Your present employer is a small, family-owned business but everyone knows everyone and the owners treat you like family.

On the back burner

Tradeoffs aren’t always comfortable, which is why we try to disregard them. We seldom consider tradeoffs when we make decisions. Quite often, the compulsions of the moment do not give us the luxury of time for weighing options.

Tradeoffs can take a while to become visible. They may only show up in the long term. In the meanwhile, life goes on with or without you. As Einstein said:

“Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance, you must keep moving.”

If we pause to reflect on the options, without losing our forward momentum and balance, we can end up with more satisfying choices. Impulsive choices extract a price. The price may be more than you can afford.

Six of one, half dozen the other

Tradeoffs carry opportunity costs: what you must forgo to get what you want. The higher the value is of what you could be doing versus what you are doing, the larger the opportunity cost.

You didn’t take a vacation because you wanted the money to buy a new car. The holiday is your opportunity cost. Life is full of hundreds of similar examples.

Tiger by the Tail

The consequences of ignoring tradeoffs and opportunity costs play out in the same fashion time and again. Here are some situations where you might want to stop and reflect.

  • You feel like you are always behind, always trying to catch up. There’s no time to stop and smell the roses. Understanding tradeoffs in time usage is an excellent way to cut out unhelpful behaviours and wastage.
  • You are working as hard as you can, but don’t appear to be making any progress. The working day feels like drudgery. You feel trapped in “zero-sum” situations where one gain is offset by another loss.
  • Multitasking doesn’t work. When you multitask, you are constantly shifting attention. This endless flitting between activities has a very steep energy cost. In the long run, you lose. You will be much better off doing them one at a time.

Taming the tiger

There is always a space between the tradeoffs we’re making and the ones we’d rather be doing. Once you notice this gap, it’s easier to work on changing circumstances. Here are some strategies.

  • Reframe the situation: Spending more time at home could be a significant opportunity cost. Your present work situation demands long hours in the office. Maybe you should consider working from home.
  • Alter boundaries: Examine your self-imposed limits. Go to work at transcending them. A lot of things that we think we can’t do are from never trying.
  • Bargain: Tradeoffs are not written in stone. There’s always room for negotiating and reaching a happy compromise. Don’t be inflexible.
  • Accept: You need to be able to let go of not being great at something. “Kill your darlings” — a piece of advice which editors give to aspiring writers holds good here.

Decision Diary

Get into the habit of writing a diary for the more significant decisions you make. Put down brief statements about the following items:

  • The nature of the situation that needs a resolution.
  • A list of the possible routes of action.
  • The pros and cons of each of them.
  • Your choice and why you did so.
  • What tradeoffs did you have to make?
  • What do you expect from this selection?

As the diary grows, review your entries now and then. You will get a good insight into your decision-making process and an insight into your mind.


Ironically, knowing how to make tradeoffs is a valuable skill; those who can do this well, get more out of life than others who aspire for everything.

“There are moments that define a person’s whole life. Moments in which everything they are and everything they may possibly become balance on a single decision. … These are moments ungoverned by happenstance, untroubled by luck. These are the moments in which a person earns the right to live, or not.” ― Jonathan Maberry, Rot & Ruin*


Dr Arjun Rajagopalan

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Teleworking: staying visible in the new reality of work

“Mayday, Mayday!” the dreaded call from an aeroplane going down echoed all over the world when the COVID pandemic struck. The Internet was the parachute that brought us down in one piece (at least those of us who were lucky enough to be outfitted with one) — “shaken, not stirred”.

It’s been months since many of us have seen the familiar insides of our workplace. The ability to work from anywhere, anytime has been around for some years. It took an event of this worldwide magnitude to show us the full potential of working from home. Whatever our reaction to teleworking — overjoyed, frustrated, angry or neutral — we have to come to grips with it being a part of our working style for the years to come.

For some, it might seem like having your cake and eating it too, but teleworking has its downside.

We ache for the day-to-day bantering with associates. Many, if not most, of the tacit communication channels that were present in the physical office, are no longer at hand. Water cooler conversations are gone. The office grapevine has collapsed; we no longer know who’s doing what, with whom and where.

“Out of sight, out of mind”: this well-worn aphorism has never been more valid than in the age of COVID. Memories fade over time. We begin to wonder if our colleagues think about us at all.

Visibility is key to success at work. Staying on top-of-the-mind-recall is going to involve a new set of rules and behaviours, some of them awkward for the kind of person you are. We need to take a fresh look at workplace dynamics. Here’s a game plan for the new reality of work, for staying virtually visible.

You, as a brand

I can be changed by what happens to me. But I refuse to be reduced by it. ― Maya Angelou, Letter to My Daughter

You have to learn to sell yourself; this could be disturbing to many. Far from being an attempt at blatant self-promotion, you need to see self-branding as an essential part of the new reality. Unless you do, you will be left behind when it comes to promotions and advancement.

Here’s how

Email is your light sabre

The bulk of all communication, work and personal, happens over email. Hardly anyone puts pen down to paper anymore.

  • Answer all you mail within an hour or two. The closer your response is in time to the mail you received, the better the chance of your reply being seen in the right context. We don’t think about it this way but developing a reputation as a prompt responder is a great way to stay visible.
  • As you come across material — websites, quotes, small extracts —that is interesting, forward it to those who might enjoy reading it. A little trick: don’t just send the link. Precede it with a paragraph or two with your comment or opinion. This way, your message is personalised; the recipient will feel compelled to read the matter and see what made you think that way.
    • Don’t restrict your forwards to dancing cats and other pieces of fluff on Youtube. People may enjoy them but will rarely remember who sent it. There is also a real danger of being seen as a mindless pest.

Linkedin, not Facebook or Instagram

Be active on Linkedin, the premier social network for professionals. There is a popular misconception about LinkedIn being only for job searches and recruiters. LinkedIn offers a terrific amount of good stuff.

Complete your profile with care. There are any number of articles which will tell you how to do it with flair. Google them. Your profile is your resume. Nurture it with care.

  • Scout around on Linkedin Groups and join some which interest you.
  • Be active with your posts and comments.
  • Read articles posted. Connect with people who share similar interests.
  • Hashtags are a great way of locating exceptional pieces. You don’t need a ton of connections and followers to find interesting reading.
  • Unlike Twitter, Facebook and Instagram where your posts have a life of minutes, LinkedIn has a much longer half-life. Your posts stay in circulation for days.

Rather than wasting your hours on Facebook or Instagram, you’d be much better off on LinkedIn. You may not become an influencer with hundreds of thousands of followers, but you will be pleasantly surprised by the number of people who notice you and remember you.

Who knows, if you need to find a new job, all this work will be useful.

Birthdays, anniversaries, events

Start sending personal notes to people for birthdays, anniversaries and other memorable events. Maintain a calendar.Being regular with these notes is particularly important in the days of social distancing where you cannot attend events in person.

Random acts of kindness

  • One of the things that bowl people over is to receive small, sincere notes of thanks and gratitude. Now is the time to start saying “Thank you” for acts of kindness. Think back and pick up on significant events.
  • Volunteer for causes. Pay it forward. Increase good karma in the world.

Embrace Uncertainty

There have been very few eras in human history shrouded in such immense amounts of uncertainty and darkness about the future. None of us imagined in our wildest dreams that we would be witness to such a radical change in the way we work. Mindfulness and living in the moment are the key to maintaining equilibrium.

 

“I believe that everything happens for a reason. People change so that you can learn to let go, things go wrong so that you appreciate them when they’re right, you believe lies so you eventually learn to trust no one but yourself, and sometimes good things fall apart so better things can fall together.” ― Author unknown, commonly misattributed to Marilyn Monroe


Dr Arjun Rajagopalan

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