Whose Narrative Stood Out at the Big Tech’s Antitrust Hearing?

BigTech's Narrative in Antitrust Hearing
Morning Brew by Unsplash

On July 29th, four men who run companies worth $ 4.85 trillion appeared before the US Congress’s members of House judiciary’s antitrust subcommittee. It was part of the hearing on “Online Platforms and Market Power”, and the chief executives are there to defend their powerful businesses from the hammer of government.

Any guesses – who these gentlemen were?

They were Jeff Bezos (Amazon), Tim Cook (Apple), Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook) and Sundar Pichai (Alphabet-Google). And they were to argue that their businesses are not powerful! Yes, that is what they did.

Narrative in antitrust hearing

I am not here to argue whether they are powerful or not, I will best leave that to the US Congress and the readers to decide. But I am going to see who among these influential executives did a better job with their defence.

From their written testimony, I am going to analyze their statements from the narrative lens, who articulated their position in an impactful and convincing manner with supporting stories. For this analysis, I have picked the written statements from the website of the US House Committee on the Judiciary and listened to the five hr+ hearing video.

Decoding Jeff Bezos’s (Amazon) Narrative Traits in his Testimony

Jeff Bezos is known for his narrative style as can be observed from his annual letter to shareholders and the famous 6-page narrative structure memo used in meetings in place of PowerPoint presentations.

He puts to good use his narrative memo structure with one deviation – it runs to 8th page and is one of the detailed testimony that I read among the four.

Jeff starts in style with his origin story. He also gets into details, like his mother was 17 years when she got pregnant with Jeff in Albuquerque, New Mexico, how she has to struggle to attend school and the role of his grandfather in getting his daughter educated.

He moves on to share the story of his immigrant father from Cuba, his traits such as grit and determination and packs a punch when he says, “You get different gifts in life, and one of my great gifts is my mom and dad. They have been incredible role models for me and my siblings our entire lives.” There are several such powerful statements across the testimony document.

From the way he explains about his grandfather, one gets a feeling that Jeff is more like his grandfather. He recollects incidents to support his narrative of him as a problem solver. Bezos has this to say about his grandfather, “He taught me that you can take on hard problems. When you have a setback, you get back up and try again. You can invent your way to a better place.”

And then continues to support that statement with some of his inventions as a teenager. Till here it was more about personal story, detailing about the key stakeholders from his growing up years, humble background and repeatedly affirming that he overcame all odds. This is something that aligns well with the judiciary committee’s objective of supporting the less powerful, small-time businesses against these four big giants.

Jeff Bezos takes us back to the day when he decided to quit his full-time job in an investment firm in New York and how his manager tried to convince him to stay with the job as this business idea (online bookstore) was for someone who didn’t have a good job. Jeff says, he decided to start up and leave the job with his heart and not with his head.

A message he conveys to all aspiring entrepreneurs who talk about risk in starting up. Jeff’s punch statement, “When I’m 80 and reflecting back, I want to have minimized the number of regrets that I have in my life. And most of our regrets are acts of omission—the things we did not try, the paths untraveled. Those are the things that haunt us. And I decided that if I didn’t at least give it my best shot, I was going to regret not trying to participate in this thing called the internet that I thought was going to be a big deal.”

This reminded of the Steve Jobs’ Stanford commencement speech, which was famous for its storytelling aspects, “Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition.”

Over the next few paragraphs, he talks about the risks associated with running a startup in the internet domain and the early day struggles. Even after they grew, he cites that risk-taking and not afraid of failures has been Amazon’s biggest strength. He introduces the concept of, “Day One” mentality that makes Amazon to maintain the energy and entrepreneurial spirit of Day One.

Jeff Bezos then ties how obsessive customer focus is helping them to maintain the Day One mindset. Another punch, “Not every business takes this customer-first approach, but we do, and it’s our greatest strength.”

He emphasizes building customer trust as a key to Amazon’s success. Jeff details the multiple ways Amazon works to earn customer trust and why it is not very easy, “You earn trust slowly, over time, by doing hard things well— delivering on time; offering everyday low prices; making promises and keeping them; making principled decisions, even when they’re unpopular; and giving customers more time to spend with their families by inventing more convenient ways of shopping, reading, and automating their homes.”

And this is where I kind of fell for him. He cites various independent studies on how Americans trust Amazon next only to the US military and the local police. WOW!

At this point, he ups the ante. He gets into the details of his businesses. How online retail helps create jobs in various neighbourhoods by hiring for different skills – the mechanics and plant managers to the computer scientists and MBAs. It is critical to tell the committee that jobs are created locally to serve American consumers, retail being operation intensive, and 80% of their business, they will keep doing this day in and out.

To further drive home this point, he talks about the Career Choice program, which costs them $700 million to train more than 100,000 Amazon employees in various fields and is not always related to their line of business. Jeff Bezos shares about Patricia Soto who utilized this program and is now employed with a medical foundation. Career choice enabled her to pursue a second career which was once seemed out of reach.

Amazon invested $270 billion in the last decade in the US and in addition to direct employment they also helped create 700,000 indirect jobs in construction, hospitality etc,. These jobs were also created in unlikely cities that led to economic activity. He further points to the 175,000 employees hired during COVID with a mandate to hire the laid off.

His speech is nuanced with data leading some arguments supported with narratives and in other places, narrative leading and supported with data.

If you are aware of the Freytag’s pyramid of storytelling, it has the following elements – exposition, rising action, climax, falling action and resolution.

In my view, so for Jeff Bezos sets up the stage for his climax. In the next few paragraphs, he delves deeper into the retail market as a whole and makes the argument why Amazon is not a dominating force. This the key message he wants to send to the committee. Let us see how he unravels it.

Without beating around the bush, in the opening line itself, he states, “Amazon accounts for less than 1% of the $25 trillion global retail market and less than 4% of retail in the US. Unlike winner-take-all industries, there’s room for many winners in retail.

For example, more than 80 retailers in the US alone earn over $1 billion in annual revenue. He pits himself against Walmart which a the largest retailer (primarily offline)and how they are also ramping up their online business (growth of 74% in first quarter of 2020). He also cites online specific competition like Shopify which enable any offline retailer to set up online store easily. He finishes of this argument with, “The range of retail competitors and related services is constantly changing, and the only real constant in retail is customers’ desire for lower prices, better selection, and convenience.”

The next big salvo he fires is against the argument that Amazon is squeezing small retailers. He cites two stories, and both are women-centric– Sherri Yukel (selling handicraft gifts and now employs 80 people catering to a global customer base)  and Christine Krogue (a stay at home mother of five selling baby clothes and Amazon helping her to double her sales and growing her business).

In the following sections he talks about how fulfilment of Amazon helps create a great customer experience,the players who are challenging Amazon in retail space globally and locally, the minimum wages Amazon provides and why it is important to bring this minimum wage benchmarks to the industry as a whole, the parity in benefits, the diversity in Amazon shareholding (80% shares owned by outsiders), how growth of Amazon helps its investors such as pension funds enabling people to retire better ($1 trillion wealth created for outsiders) etc.

All these points are aimed at the anti-stories that the committee members have as part of their enquiry. The message he sends, the financial success of Amazon has helped the common shareholders enormously.

Before he concludes, he gets into the big picture items. Its important being big, as scale enables to do certain things that is not possible when you are small. This is a powerful punch to cement that argument, “I love garage entrepreneurs—I was one. But, just like the world needs small companies, it also needs large ones. There are things small companies simply can’t do. I don’t care how good an entrepreneur you are, you’re not going to build an all-fiber Boeing 787 in your garage.”

With that statement, he gets onto the big picture like how Amazon is becoming environmentally friendly and commits itself to meet the Paris climate agreement well ahead of time. They are doing this with the adoption of electric delivery vans (supporting Rivian to grow), investing in solar and wind projects, investing in global reforestation projects and the start of climate pledge fund that invests in startups that are building products and services to help companies reduce their carbon impact and operate more sustainably.

And then some social cause projects where Amazon is directly contributing with programs like Amazon Future engineer aimed at underrepresented, underserved communities and minorities to pursue a computer science career, the homeless shelter project in association with non-profit Mary’s place etc.

He signs off by stating that the US is a great nation for companies to start, grow and thrive. Despite all the challenges, people from outside still aspire to be part of this country like his father for the sheer amount of optimism and opportunity this great nation has gifted to the world.

Having read and heard all their written testimonies and their responses to questions, I believe that Jeff Bezos is a natural storyteller and has done a better job in his defence.

Decoding Tim Cook’s Testimony for Narrative Traits

Tim Cook starts with why a company like Apple is possible only in the US, enriching people’s lives is their mission, and they do that by making the best and not the most. So, he straight away knocks off the belief that they are not in the business of selling more. He talks about the Apple promise of building things that makes them proud, and he attributes how Steve Jobs, Apple’s founder, defined their purpose – we only make things that we would recommend to our family and friends.

The case against Apple is unique in comparison to the other three.Apple’s app store is not an equitable place, it promotes its apps vs apps developed by other developers and the charges to use app store are anticompetitive.

Tim talks about the famous Apple user experience and how they are focussed on providing customer satisfaction (iPhone enjoys 99% customer satisfaction rating), and that is their best metric to track progress.

He details more about how Apple is not the dominant player in the smartphone market and this market is very competitive with players like Samsung, LG etc.

Tim Cook then details more about the app store, its features, the business model, how they enable others to develop apps and make money, for a vast majority of apps developers keep 100% of the money and that the charges are also vastly lower than the 50-70% the developers paid before app store came into existence. He goes on to state, app store since its debut has evolved with two primary objectives – one to provide better user experience and the other creating compelling business opportunity for developers.

An economic miracle in the making is what Tim Cook defines Apple’s app store. He does this by getting into the specifics like when the app store was launched it had only 500 apps, while today it has more than 1.7 million apps and only 60 of them belong to Apple (this is the norm variance narrative). And makes a point of how much economic activity is created – the app store ecosystem enabled over half a trillion dollars business worldwide and in US alone $138 billion.

Tim signs off with the massive impact created by Apple’s different products such as the first Mac creating opportunity and possibility by disrupting the personal computing market, iPod creating opportunities for musicians with fair pay for their creative work.

To me, it was a testimony loaded with more of numbers, specifics around app store with less of storytelling.

Did Mark Zuckerberg Adopt a Different Narrative Style?

Zuckerberg starts with the problem Facebook is solving – “People use our apps to share videos, photos, livestreams, posts and private messages; to join communities, set up fundraisers for good causes, and even register to give blood. We also help millions of businesses connect with customers. Facebook gives small businesses and individual entrepreneurs access to sophisticated tools that previously only the largest players had. Now any business can use our services to establish an online presence, reach potential customers and grow.”

With the purpose being set clear, he talks about the competition that Facebook faces and how the US is the bedrock of competition and innovation. Due to the competition, several tech companies have failed. At the end of his testimony, he ties this point to another Facebook move. Watch out.

The values that Facebook believes in (democracy, competition, inclusion and free expression) and the ones on which the American economy is built-in are the same is Zuckerberg’s argument. Since it’s the season of China vs the US, he also cites the values of Chinese companies are very different than that of Facebook and the US-based companies.

In his testimony, he goes one step further. He suggests to the US Congress, “I believe it’s important to maintain the core values of openness and fairness that have made America’s digital economy a force for empowerment and opportunity here and around the world.”

Zuckerberg delves deeper into Facebook’s genesis, the different entities acquired such as WhatsApp, Instagram and the services they provide, the hardware products and the investment that goes into R&D ($ 10 billion every year) to improve their offerings to stay relevant to their users.

Since the committee is tasked to probe the anti-competitive forces of Facebook and other companies, Zuckerberg makes an argument around FB’s contribution to the open-source community. Also goes on to make a point that FB shares the results coming out of their research to the entire ecosystem so that it helps in developing new products.

Then he gets on to the social cause projects such as crisis response tools (Safety check tool used in 1400 crises and in 2018 alone, used across 80+ countries in 300 crises) which helps to share information, raise money etc. He cites one specific example of how non-profit No Kid Hungry has raised over $5 million from more than 200,000 donors to help feed children across the United States. The next is about commitment to invest in Black and minority community suppliers in the US.

Since there have been accusations on Facebook on their aggressive and anticompetitive M&A practices, he goes on to state WhatsApp and Instagram acquisitions has helped the individual entities to leverage Facebook’s technology, infrastructure, funding to develop and launch new features which would have not been possible otherwise. This is in alignment to provide better services that offer more value to people and advertisers.

He tries to crush the argument on the scale being anti-competitive by suggesting a more active role for governments and regulators and updated rules for the internet. He also addresses the concern on data privacy and information security-related aspects – like quoting that there are 35,000 people now in FB working on safety and security, an increase of 3X resources in 3 years.

Among the four companies, Mark Zuckerberg has appeared most no. of times in front of antitrust committees for FB’s controversial actions in the past, hence I believe he goes the extra mile and commits for taking more responsibility to keep people safe on their our platform.

Towards the end, he details, how FB has helped people and businesses since the start of COVID pandemic. There was a jump of 1000%  of cirical communication calls in Italy during early stages of the pandemic, 700 million people doing video calls on WhatsApp and Messenger in April, enabling small businesses to operate online, connecting non-profits to run fundraisers etc.

He is the only CEO who mentions that beyond the talk on antitrust and competition issues, the Congress also has an opportunity to talk about how technology can better serve society as these are the most influential executives in the tech world.

Zuckerberg’s concluding remark, “Several years ago, Facebook moved our headquarters to the campus where Sun Microsystems used to be. We kept their sign out front, on the back of ours, to remind us that things change fast in tech. I’ve long believed that the nature of our industry is that someday a product will replace Facebook. I want us to be the ones that build it, because if we don’t, someone else will.”

Zuckerberg’s testimony is well written to address all the concerns that the committee might have had. But the testimony statement was devoid of narrative elements.

What Narrative Traits did Sundar Pichai (Google) Use in His Testimony?

Sundar Pichai starts by stating his personal value of expanding access to opportunity by using technology and goes on to narrate his story. A story of a boy coming from a technologically disadvantaged place and how the US gave him access to computers. This opportunity enabled him to create many cutting-edge technology products, including Google chrome etc.

From his point, he sees technology should provide access to anyone irrespective of his/her background and the US as a country has done this for him. It closely relates to the subcommittee’s concern for equal opportunities in business. Personal stories are compelling, and he also goes one step further by tying his values to the subcommittee’s objective.

He proceeds further to state how as a company, Google has helped Americans with jobs (out of 120,000 worldwide Google employees – 75,000 are in US alone), investments and how they are creating jobs in different states of US (Google’s offices and data centers are spread across 26 states out of 50 states).

One needs to remember, the end goal of this antitrust committee is to avoid monopolistic powerful businesses that skews opportunities and take away any unfair advantages these big giants have by virtue of their size, money, data and business agreements.

To alleviate this concern, he goes on to share stories of people who have benefited by using Google’s products & services. When people have preconceived notions, it is tough to cut ice with them through facts, slick presentations, or passionate speeches. The best way to counter is by sharing stories with perspective supporting one’s argument. Sundar Pichai leveraged that with the stories of how Fat Witch Bakery of New York, Kettlebell Kings of Austin and Berry Digital of Urbana are using Google Ads, analytics and YouTube to improve their business prospects even during COVID.

Beyond this, he gets more into the data of how much Google is investing in R&D, cites how their investments in technology like AI, self-driving cars and quantum computing are helping other industries such as medicine and battery manufacturers.

He further moves on to citing how Google’s competition is equally powerful, how competition has helped in reducing advertising costs, how they are enabling others to innovate with the freely available Android platform and how it has enabled to launch feature phones at lower prices.

Sundar Pichai started well with the connection story that helped him to connect with the cause of the enquiry, he then moved on to use stories of small businesses who have benefited from Google products but then he veered into data on investments, statements on competition and ended with typical corporate-speak on privacy & security.

I somehow felt that his 2nd half of the statement was typical corporate speak whereas he could have done better by continuing what he did in the 1st half of the statement.

In summary,

These are the most powerful men in the corporate tech world when they speak, the world listens. I think given the nature of the enquiry, had the CEOs been more open about the impact they had created to the community with anecdotes and references to specific cases (which only Jeff Bezos and Sundar Pichai used), it would have added some heft to their defense.  

Since I also listened to the enquiry, I can see that the enquiry committee members have several points loaded against the anti-competitive practices of all these companies.

I also saw the frustration expressed by one of the members on how they broke ATT in 1984 almost for the same reason for which these 4 companies are being called for hearing. But after 35 yrs, ATT has grown through M&As and is now again back to where it was as the dominant telecom operator of the US.

Given this backdrop, it would be interesting to watch out for the outcome of this enquiry and how it pans out.  

How Storytelling Helps Leaders During a Crisis?

How storytelling helps leaders during a crisis?
Photo by Daniel Gregoire on Unsplash

Wells Fargo is still in business, but their reputation remains stigmatized! Why?

In 2016 Wells Fargo, a financial service company based in the US, faced a crisis. Their employees were forced to open fake accounts without the consent of customers to meet sales targets.

When the scandal came to the notice of authorities, the bank paid $185 million in fine.

They could have tried to reduce the damage had their leadership taken the responsibility and established open communication with all their stakeholders.

But, Wells Fargo’s leadership response potentially damaged the bank’s image as much as the scandal.

In times of crisis, employees, customers and partners get panicked. Sharing information alone doesn’t help. They are well within their rights to know what happened. And when you don’t tell them what happened, they start looking for information from other sources. Great leaders know how to use storytelling during a crisis. They use it to deliver key messages and demonstrate their leadership chops.

Storytelling helps to connect with stakeholders during a crisis in a manner they empathize with you. By being authentic in your communication, you make them realize they are important part of your business and you are taking necessary steps.

Storytelling during a crisis at play

In 2008, Maple Leaf Foods a food processing company based in Canada that supplies processed meat faced a crisis where their products were contaminated by listeria. Twelve people died, and many more fell ill.

When most people would try to suppress things, CEO Michael McCain took accountability. He didn’t try to blame employees, food safety standards, or equipment manufacturers.

Michael McCain, president of Maple Leaf Foods, holds media briefing on new food safety protocols at its new packaging meat plant in Laval, Que., Friday, Dec. 12, 2008

Instead, he took responsibility & stayed transparent by telling people about the breach of safety standards. He led from front, if he had not told what Maple Leaf is doing, then someone would have driven the narrative putting him in a defensive position.

A company-specific crisis can give ammunition to competition & the media to paint a villain out of you. They are looking for an opportunity and are least bothered about the real issue.

In this case, Maple Leaf could have easily become a villain, but since McCain took charge of the narrative, he could tell the company’s side of the story. It helped them to fix the issue and move on.

Post the debacle, Maple Leaf deployed the best staff for their food processing units and ran several marketing campaigns to regain the market share. By the end of 2009, they returned to profit.

Usually, companies recruit an army of lawyers and accountants to reduce the damage and pin the blame on someone. But McCain understood the emotions of his customers and treated them like humans. He conveyed the truth & people understood.

Crisis communication is an integral part of crisis management. You may have already identified the problem and started working on it, but as long as you don’t communicate it with your customers, they won’t know.

You can’t work in silence, especially during a crisis. If Maple Leaf had stayed silent and not communicated, they would have lost their credibility for life and faced severe legal consequences.

Great companies demonstrate their values during crisis

With the COVID crisis, companies are struggling to adapt to the radical changes happening in the business environment. One of the major problems faced is employee productivity.

CodeScience, a Saas company based in Chattanooga, US, took this moment to comfort their employees, who were feeling overwhelmed.

Their team always worked remote, so adapting to the new norm of work from home was not a problem for them. But what was different this time was they had to do it alongside their kids & spouses at home.

In March, Brian Walsh, the CEO of the company, tweeted a list of things they are doing to make their employees feel relevant. One of the interesting ideas was to normalize the noise of kids in the background during a professional call.

He also invited the kids of their employees to join their company call, making it an event to share their self-isolation stories.

It made them feel that they are not the only ones losing track of work. It also acted as a team-building session for their employees who barely saw each other.

An employee posted a message on LinkedIn, in response to CodeScience’s note. “This is another reason why CodeScience is the BEST place to work. Beyond grateful for our leadership team, and I am so proud to be a part of this amazing company and family.”

What the company did through this was they expressed their value of transparency. They told their employees that we know it’s difficult for you & you don’t have to hide it from us. To know more on how to find and share stories read.

People are more likely to do what you say when you give them a reason for that action. CodeScience stayed true to their value of transparency, which encouraged their employees to remain transparent and show what their current work from home situation was like.

Lesson from crisis communication gone wrong

Stories help you give the right context to your message delivery. Lack of context may cause misleading message delivery, which can hurt your reputation. Recently, brands like McDonald’s, Audi, etc. supported social distancing by giving spaces between elements in their logo.

But was that message thoughtful? Certainly not, as people in Brazil felt that it was insensitive for McDonald’s to do that. They felt like the restaurants are still open and are being opportunistic.

The redesign lacked context, leading McDonald’s to issue a public apology. Even though the logo redesign was a creative move, it didn’t resonate with their patrons.

People criticized this move on all social channels as they expected the brand to be responsible & sympathetic towards people. They wanted to see McDonald’s care for their employees & distribute free meals to the marginalized.

Alternately, if McDonald’s had backed the redesign with stories of how they are helping people amidst social distancing norms, then the message might have been conceived in a positive light.

Crafting your narrative

To use storytelling during a crisis, create an engaging narrative for your story, discuss the tension, and tell people what you are doing to repair the damage. Taking ownership & telling the story gives you the power to direct the dialogue. It is not about what happened as things can go wrong. It is more important to communicate what you are doing to improve the situation.

Need help in crafting narrative? Happy to help.


Storytelling can be a tremendous value-adding element to your communication. Not only it helps to create enticing marketing and promotional messages but can prove to be beneficial in crisis. Storytelling in crisis enables consumers to understand your situation better. Your stakeholders want you to be open & transparent about what you are doing to ensure that it doesn’t happen again. Understanding the emotions of your customers, employees, and community by supporting your messaging with the right stories can help you make a way out of the crisis.


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