by Chuck Martin

The Key to Better Communication: Shorter Memos

Jan 28, 20083 mins
IT Leadership

Want your business writing to get attention? Don't waste words, and watch your grammar. People tend to write way too much... so, for example, we had to shorten this article.

When it comes to business writing, shorter is better.

Everyone is familiar with the well-thought-out memo, which contains virtually all the details about its subject. Too long to read now, you print it for later. It sits in the stack, with that magazine article that you’re saving for when you have the proper amount of time to devote to it. Then, other important items get added to the stack, and that critical memo keeps falling lower, ultimately becoming neglected as it fades in importance over time.

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As everyone in business knows, finding the time to read anything lengthy can be challenging, at best. In a nationwide survey of senior executives and managers that we at NFI Research conducted, 85 percent of those in large companies said the written communications they receive from their subordinates are too long. Almost half said they were significantly so.

“Being clear and concise is probably the most important key to effective business writing,” said one survey respondent. “I’ve seen brilliant ideas from brilliant coworkers go unnoticed for no other reason than they were buried in way too much text.”

Said another: “Many e-mails are short but with long attachments. E-mails saying, ‘Please read this’ with a long attachment and no descriptive subject are real time-wasters.”

As another executive pointed out, unless there is a very complex situation to be described, most problems or solutions can be explained in a few lines.

Writing Quality Is Bad, Too

The length of written business communications is not the only issue. A lack of quality also irks many survey respondents.

“I notice a marked decline in the structure, grammar, syntax and overall impact of messages in written communications,” said one manager. “This applies both to subordinates and, to a lesser degree, to the C-level communicator.”

“Unfortunately, we take the written communication too lightly today,” said another respondent. “Text messages, IM and brief e-mails have diminished our ability to share our thoughts, plans, recommendations and goals effectively. This lack of professionalism ultimately slips into other areas, lessening our effectiveness as a company.”

Some managers we surveyed think college students simply have forgotten—or never learned—how to write. “College students just have poorly developed writing skills,” one respondent said, and poor writing makes them look unprofessional. “Over the years, I have seen an increase in bad grammar,” said another. “Guess kids aren’t learning English like they used to.”

Good writing, on the other hand, stands out. “Being able to write is one of the considerations in our hiring,” said one manager. “I do find that many people today in business cannot write or do not realize that sometimes verbal communication is a much better way to avoid miscommunication.”

The reality is that written communication is an art, and learning to do it well can help a person in his or her career.

Chuck Martin is a best-selling business author whose latest book is SMARTS: Are We Hardwired for Success? (AMACOM/American Management Association) He teaches at the Whittemore School of Business and Economics at the University of New Hampshire and can be reached at