The Complete Guide to Writing Office Memos
A recent all-staff internal memo from two senior Yahoo executives addressed its readers as “pilgrim,” then “sailor,” and mentioned “T-Rex,” “The Itsy-Bitsy Pterodactyl,” the “hippocampian wagons” and “Ayn Randian Objectivism” all in one paragraph.
That widely ridiculed email served as a reminder that internal memos matter as much as any marketing brochure or press release—especially given how likely they are these days to leak online. ”What we write in memo form is going to become our business persona,” says Sandra Lamb, author of How to Write It.
That persona could be someone who speaks in jargon and “stilted business-school gobbledygook”—as Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer did in a memo announcing leadership changes. It could be brutally matter-of-fact, as former Nokia CEO Stephen Elop was in a wake-up call to staff. Or it could be funny and endearingly honest, as Groupon CEO Andrew Mason was when he announced his resignation. Here are some tips to ensure that your memo is clear, effective, and memorable—for the right reasons.
1. Keep it short
“A word-heavy memo is likely to be less inviting to your time-crunched co-workers and upper management, who have limited time to quickly assess whether or not to save, read or delete your memo,” says Jane Dvorak, who’s worked in public relations and business communications for 30 years. Longer, in-depth documents can be shared as a follow-on.
2. Start strong
Show some style in the subject of your email and make your first sentence strong and compelling. ”Your initial sentence is your most important,” says Robert D. Behn, a Harvard University lecturer and author of a well-regarded memo on writing memos. It should make readers want to keep reading.
A memo from the CEO of deals site LivingSocial begins with: “This email is important so please read it to the end. We recently experienced a cyber-attack…”
3. Choose the right tone
Many memos are meant merely to inform. But some need to leave their readers feeling something—inspired, or confident, or (as in the case of Elop’s Nokia memo) scared.
If you want to inspire, get beyond the basic “what” to the “why’s” and “how’s.” Share some details or a story that engages, impresses or conveys your values or your vision. When Tim Cook took over as Apple’s CEO in 2011, his memo showed his emotional commitment to Apple’s culture, values and “the best products in the world.”
But if there’s no particular feeling you’re aiming for, stick to a factual and professional tone. Otherwise, too much tone (we’re looking at you, Yahoo) will merely distract your readers from your message.