by Michael Fitzgerald

How to Write a Memorable Memo

Oct 15, 20056 mins
Collaboration SoftwareSmall and Medium Business

Chris DeVault remembers the surprise he felt as a hotshot young engineer when he was told that he needed to write better memos if he wanted to advance his career.

“My boss told me I was a bright young guy with a great future, but I had to learn to be a better communicator,” says DeVault, who is now managing principal of the mid-Atlantic region for Internosis (an IT consultancy), with responsibilities that include running IT. DeVault’s boss, Internosis CEO Robert Stalick, told him that his memos were filled with technical jargon that meant nothing to the nontechnology executives who read them. Stalick added that 80 percent of what makes a memo work is its attention to the needs of its readers.

Mastering the seemingly mundane art of writing memorandums might not seem like a career advancer, but in fact, memos remain the key way of communicating within companies, even in these days of videoconferencing and webcasts. While memos are often sent electronically now, they’re still the way companies communicate strategies, directives, meeting results and employee performance. Memos are particularly important in large companies or departments with people at multiple locations.

DeVault’s boss was right to emphasize the reader, say business writing consultants. While finer points such as writing in the active voice and using outlining to help organize thoughts are useful, “what’s really important for the CIO or anyone else is to tailor their communications to their reader,” says Barry Eckhouse, professor in the School of Economics and Business Administration at St. Mary’s College of California and author of several books on business writing and communications. Usually, he says, memos are “oriented toward the sender and the sender’s interest.”

That’s a huge mistake for any executive to make, but in particular CIOs, because of the historical rift between the languages of IT and business. Poor memos can cause business-side executives to turn down project and budget requests if they aren’t framed in a way that shows the value for the business, or they assume too much knowledge on the part of readers.

“Too often, CIOs have as the subject of a memo [something like] ’New Laptops,’” says Eric Brown, founder of Communication Associates. The memo will go on to say that laptops are desperately needed and will cite the cost—but won’t explain why they are needed. So its message will be ignored. “CIOs don’t get the laptops, and they wonder why,” he says.

Brown says it’s because many IT people fail to consider the purpose of the memo, which should be to offer a solution to a business problem. In this case, the point is not that the company needs new laptops; rather, it might be that the company needs to address why it’s been losing sales. If, for example, the existing laptops no longer connect well with corporate systems—and therefore salespeople can’t give the same information to potential customers as their rivals can—then a technology upgrade could have a direct impact on the company’s profitability. (See “Before,” on this page and “After,” on Page 87, to see how Brown helped one CIO successfully rewrite just such a memo.

Brown notes the stereotype that technologists often enter the IT field because they don’t like having to communicate. But communication is hugely important to all managers, he says.

CIOs should know that a good memo really is built around the answers to five questions:

1. Who’s the reader?

The answer to this question helps the CIO frame the memo. Nontechnical readers may need a terminology key. A mixed group of readers, or a distribution list that includes people unfamiliar with a project, might dictate adding a background section.

2. What do I want readers to recall?

“Most people don’t take the time to really understand what their key message is. They just sit and write. I ask them, ’What is the one key piece of information you want your reader to remember?’ and most of them say ’I don’t know,’” says Sheryl Lindsell-Roberts, a communications consultant who is the author of Strategic Business Letters and E-mail. CIOs must know what their point is and write to support that.

3. What format should I use?

E-mail has replaced paper for most kinds of written communication, and that’s especially true in the IT world. But CIOs should remember that people often print important e-mails. An e-mailed memo should be easily readable when printed out, with short paragraphs and even margins. Alternately, CIOs can give a particularly important memo more oomph by sending it on paper. “People are so bombarded with e-mail that paper can really make an impact,” says Lindsell-Roberts.

4.¿Can I say it more simply?

Most memos shouldn’t go much past half a page, and certainly not more than three, except on rare occasions. CIOs have to watch out for the technologist’s tendency to explain things. “CIOs often write too much, they overdo things, they’re too helpful,” says Deborah Dumaine, author of Write to the Top and president of Better Communications Business Writing Workshops. Best to keep things to the point and avoid jargon, which only confuses people not in IT. And remember that it’s OK to use one-sentence paragraphs; that’s a good way of emphasizing the main point.

5. How does this sound?

Ask someone else to read your memo before you send it out. It can be your assistant, a management peer or one of the company’s professional communicators in marketing or public relations. Len Rand, who spent 22 years in management positions at companies such as Intel and Intergraph before becoming one of the managing directors of Granite Ventures, says he learned early on to have a corporate communications specialist look at many of his memos. He happened to ask a PR woman on his staff to look over a memo he’d been struggling with. ’”She came back with something that was much better. And I said, Why should I be proud? I have people on staff who are accessible to me who are professionals at writing or at expressing something for HR. Why shouldn’t I use that to my advantage?”

It may take some time to make these five questions part of your memo-writing style. DeVault remembers the struggle he faced in changing his technique, although he was young and eager to do so. Even Stalick, DeVault’s boss, who started out as a journalist and has always made good writing a part of his management style, fesses up: “I have written bad memos.”

But mastery of memo writing is something any CIO can and should do. With a little practice, your memo writing will improve to the point where you’ll find others responding the way you want them to.