Jeff Bezos hadn't yet settled on a name for his company, but he had settled on the one skill that was essential for his first job opening in 1994. Bezos was looking for a talented Unix developer to work for Cadabra, later renamed Amazon. To land the job, Bezos said:
"Top-notch communication skills are essential."
Today, 25 years later, top-notch communication skills are so essential that when LinkedIn surveyed 4,000 hiring professionals, "leadership and communication" topped the list of must-have job requirements.
Bezos was ahead of his time. For my new book, Five Stars, I interviewed HR managers, authors, historians, entrepreneurs, and CEOs. The theme that emerged was that communication skills are even more important today than they were when Amazon started.
For example, I spoke to author and tech journalist Brad Stone who wrote a book on Amazon called The Everything Story. Stone argues that successful startups today are often run by "extroverted storytellers," entrepreneurs who can convince employees, partners, investors, and customers that their vision is worth pursuing.
Remarkably, well before "chief storytelling officer" was an actual title, Bezos acted as the company's chief storyteller--and expected his employees to be skilled storytellers.
In his 2018 newsletter, Bezos revealed that PowerPoint is banned at executive meetings. Instead of looking at bullet points on a slide, executives sit around a table reading a six-page narrative--a real story with complete sentences, verbs, and nouns.
Recently, I spoke to John Rossman, a former Amazon executive who participated in Bezos's storytelling meetings. Being forced to write an idea in a complete narrative resulted in "better ideas, more clarity on the ideas, and better conversation on the ideas," Rossman said.
Whether you're a software engineer, coder, entrepreneur, or Amazon job candidate, communication skills are essential to your success. Here are three simple ways to sharpen the essential skill that you need to stand out.
1. Tell vivid stories.
Storytelling comes naturally to writers, marketers, and creatives, but many business professionals don't know where to start. Storytelling can be intimidating. I've spent 20 years studying persuasion and storytelling and I still learn something new every week.
Start your journey to becoming a better a storytelling by simply sharing more personal anecdotes that tie into your presentation's theme. If you watch TED Talks, many of them start with a personal story before diving into facts and figures. It's done on purpose. Ideas that catch on are wrapped in story.
One example of an origin story is the now-famous story of Bezos's cross-country road trip in 1994, during which he typed out Amazon's business plan while his wife drove. Ten years earlier, another Seattle entrepreneur, Howard Schultz, made a fateful trip to Milan, Italy, where he fell in love with the coffee culture and brought his experience back to America. He named his idea Starbucks.
As an entrepreneur or small business owner, you probably have a built-in origin story worth telling, too.
2. Read books.
Books hit the shelves every year that will make you a better communicator. Some are writing books, like three new books I recently featured. You might also read history books like Leadership in Turbulent Times by Doris Kearns Goodwin. History books reveal how great leaders used communication skills to sell their ideas.
Books by CEOs like Connecting the Dots (John Chambers, Cisco) are also valuable because they demonstrate how current and successful business leaders have improved their communication skills to elevate their careers.
3. Watch successful presentations.
It's hard to write about vocal delivery, body language, and stage presence. That's why I recommend watching TED talks and not just for the content. Pay attention to how speakers interact with slides (they don't read from slides like many presenters), make eye contact with the audience, and use large, expansive gestures. TED conference organizers choose speakers for their content, of course, and also their ability to deliver their content in an engaging style.
Bezos recognized very early that job candidates who were skilled in one area--like coding and enginering--would still fall short of their potential if they didn't have the ability to communicate and collaborate with others. Communication is not a soft skill; it's essential.