A practical guide for writing brief memos that actually (gasp!) get read

We live in a post-literate society. Between email, instant messaging, voice mail, and the Powerpoint decks that litter Corporate America, the volume of communications is overwhelming. That said, here’s how to write something that has some possibility of cutting through the clutter. (For an example, click here.)

Write one level up
Your goal should be to get the person you are writing to, say the Director of Product Management, to scribble a note on your memo and send it to their manager, say the VP of Marketing.

Format your memo into 4 main sections

  • Background
    The background statement should tell why you are writing in the first place. Even if the person you are writing to knows the background, you’ll want to recap it very briefly for the benefit of that “next-level” decision maker.
  • Recommendations, Summary of Findings, etc.
    This runs counter to the academic style of writing most of us were taught in school, where recommendations and conclusions come only after you’ve laid out your argument. Putting your recommendations/summary/key message up front makes it easy on your reader. If they agree with your recommendation or summary they don’t need to read the rest of your memo.
  • Rationale, Findings, Support, etc.
    Here you lay out the facts, analysis, and thinking that got you to the point of arrival outlined in Section 2. I like to see these as bullet points with the first sentence bolded, to make it easy for me to skim. If you did a lot of analysis etc. reference it in Section 3 but put the detailed spreadsheets or whatever in the Appendix to your memo. This allows the reader to focus on understanding your logic versus getting distracted by extraneous detail.
  • Next Steps
    Generally, you’ll want to use the next steps to let the reader know what you want them to do in response to your memo as well as what you’ll be doing once you get their response. If your memo doesn’t have a call to action, possibly it didn’t need to be written in the first place.

Other guidelines

  • Make it clear what action is required
    Distinguish between decision makers and people who need to know. Write your memo “TO” the decision maker, “CC” people who need to know.
  • Be brief
    A one-page memo is more likely to be read than a two-page memo.
  • Spell check
    There isn’t anything more distracting than a big fat typo in the middle of a brilliant strategic analysis.
  • Persuade
    Say what you mean and back it up with facts and analysis and a compelling visual or too if it helps to make your point with fewer words. Ideally, your memo should read like something you?d actually say versus filled with prose that is overly stiff, formal, indirect, or legalistic.