Updated May 2023
I know. Who wants to celebrate the memo? We probably don't even need most of the ones we get, and the ones we do need are often poorly written so even they are pretty much a waste of time. But we can do better. Beyond not writing a memo when we don't really need one, we can write better ones. And it's not even a heavy lift.
How to write an effective memo
Thinking before you write is the key to producing better memos. We do this by breaking the memo into key parts, using the People-Information-Goals Strategy™.
Who are the people who most need to get this memo? Usually, it's fewer people than we initially think. Taking a second to consider this carefully can also help us uncover someone we overlooked at first blush. This also helps us determine the correct voice or tone for the memo.
What's the pushback recipients are likely to give you? Make a bullet list of potential yeah-buts, questions, etc. Thinking about this stuff ahead of time helps us decide what details are important for the reader, or what background material to attach, link to or otherwise reference. Do this fast.
What's the one more important big idea or take-away I want to convey? This is the top-level concept, not the details about it. Again, if you can't boil it down to one thing, you may need to revisit your idea.
What are the data points, explanations or examples that best support your main idea and address those audience questions, concerns and objections? Make another bullet list of these items. Cogitating on this for a few minutes helps us keep our memos short and to the point, unencumbered by unnecessary information. This also helps us communicate more effectively and with more impact. Too much information dilutes our message. Just enough distills it so it's more potent and easier to consume and comprehend. Learn more about the three kinds of valuable details.
What do I want the recipient/s to think/feel or do after they read this? If you can't answer this, do not send the memo.
This is about a 5-minute exercise, 10 if you need to do some rethinking. Investing those precious minutes up front will win you back a lot when you're actually writing, so this isn't a big drag on your productivity.
I strongly suggest prewriting on paper. Why? Two reasons:
- Writing by hand slows down our brains just enough so we think more carefully and thoroughly
- Putting pen to paper pretty much guarantees we keep it short, which makes the process fast and keeps us from overwriting when we're supposed to be thinking.
You can draw your own or print out our Content-Purpose-Audience Strategy worksheet.
Now you're ready to draft!
Once you've got all the thinking down, start drafting. Again, go fast. The goal is to create sentences, not win an award. Right now all you want to do is get the ideas onto the screen quickly so you can tune them up. Here's how we do it:
- Write your main idea as a sentence (just one!)
- Turn your key details into sentences. Strive for one each.
- Use the information for purpose to create a call to action.
- Read it over.
- If this is sufficient, start revising to make those sentences better, make sure the voice is right, and make sure the organization creates a logical flow. (For instance, maybe you need to begin with the call to action.) Read again. Make edits for spelling, punctuation, usage and grammar.
- If it's not, start adding a few more details here and there. For example, maybe each detail needs to be a multi-sentence paragraph.
- Read it over.
- If this is sufficient, start revising to make those sentences better, make sure the voice is right, and make sure the organization creates a logical flow. Read again. Make edits for spelling, punctuation, usage and grammar. Get more insights on how to revise.
Attempt to produce your draft in 5 minutes. Remember, this is just to get your ideas on the screen, not to produce a perfect final memo. Add in 2- or 3-minute increments. This is helpful because time constraints that we control force us to focus so we think and work more efficiently and effectively. It also frees up more time for us to spend on revision, which is really where all the magic happens.
Following this process makes it faster and easier to write a memo that conveys valuable information without taking too much time. Give it a try!
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