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The complete guide to writing corporate memos

December 6, 2013
December 6, 2013

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.

4. Be transparent and clear about your goals

What do you want the team to do after they’ve read to the bottom of your email? Know what you want to accomplish—and articulate the action steps you want from everyone. Don’t leave anyone guessing what’s expected of them.

Be transparent about the reasons for a decision. If you’re instituting a a new company policy forbidding dogs at work, for instance, explain why it is going into effect. And give a full, clear picture of the facts. Share potential hazards as well as hoped-for outcomes. (But be mindful of leaks—see point 11, below.)

5.  Write clearly

Before you start, “distill into one sentence what you want to say, consider to whom you want to say it and what you want the end result to be,” says Lamb. Go through the process of thinking that through” and you are more likely to produce a cogent memo.

When you get down to writing, avoid long words and jargon, even if you think people understand them. “Write simply. Think of Olympic diving: neatly in, no splash, soon out,” Bryan A. Garner suggests in a Harvard Business Review post about business letters.

If employees for whom English is a second language are going to read your memo, avoid slang. This is harder than it sounds. American English, as Quartz’s style guide warns, is riddled with sports slang. Even a simple word like “spot” can have a great many meanings, some of them highly colloquial.

6. Anticipate reactions

Think through how people will likely react to your announcement and what will cause worry or stress. Most of the time, if it’s a big change, workers will wonder, “What does this mean for me and my job?” Then will they think about what it means for their team; and only then, what it means for the company. In a memo on how to communicate big changes, Gretchen Rosswurm, vice president of corporate communications at Celanese, calls this a “me before we and then us” dynamic.

7. Beware of badmouthing 

Once you’ve edited out bad puns, cut anything overly critical of specific people too. As American football coach Vince Lombardi said: “Praise in public, criticize in private.” Save finger-pointing, complaints and disappointment for a small group meeting with the people who really deserve them. Says Lamb: “If you think you need an audience to dress someone down, that doesn’t reflect very well on you.”

8.  Design your communiqué

“It’s not just a ‘memo'” anymore, says Mark McClennan, senior vice president at Schwartz MSL Boston, who has 18 years experience in corporate communications. Some companies are using in-house video or social channels to supplement written communications.

So consider the best medium to convey both facts and and the right emotion. Videos can be more compelling or engaging than a memo, especially to younger workers; they may show them the location of a new plant, or give them a stronger picture of a few product or service.

9. Edit it—twice. And get someone else to do so too

With memos as with emails, never send them in haste or anger. After you write the memo, put it away for at least 15 minutes—but 15 to 24 hours is even better, says Lamb, who has served as a writing coach to businesses and middle managers.

Then: “go back and give it a critical read” and edit it carefully, she says. Trim out extraneous materials.

To check it even more carefully, read it out loud to yourself.

Then find someone else to read it, preferably someone in a very different position and perspective from yours. Choose someone who will tell you if you’re about to alienate half of your workforce, or if you come off sounding like an idiot. Ask her to read it for tone as well as clarity and content.

“If it is something important, get a colleague to improve it,” writes ad legend David Ogilvy in a 1982 memo called “How to Write.”

10.  Bad news takes extra effort

Really harsh news, like layoffs or a merger, may require a whole strategy of communications including posting materials on the corporate website, holding group meetings, and bringing in counselors after the memo is released. More details and follow-up are important to address fears, questions and issues. “Especially if the news is serious, people take in bad news only gradually,” writes Gaertner-Johnson in her 20 tips for giving bad news.

Also, be conscious of the timing for big news. Communications should go out simultaneously to the public and to employees, said McClennan.  “An internal communications plan is just as important, if not more important, than an external communications plan,” he said.

11. Expect it to be leaked

Media outlets publish leaked memos every week. AllThingsD has published dozens of them. Some media companies, like Buzzfeed and Gawker, publish their own internal memos to pre-empt anyone else doing it. “Balance transparency with discretion,” suggests Paul Maccabee, head of a strategic public relations agency in a post on leaked memos.

Politicians have long used leaked memos as trial balloons, or as a way to force detractors to speak up about why they object to a proposal or policy. Business leaders can also test ideas this way, but be careful of government regulations on disclosing material changes at the company.

So look over your missive, imagine it being read by millions of people under a provocative headline and a snarky riff from a blogger, and ask yourself if it would seriously embarrass you or reveal something sensitive. If you can live with it being public, it’s probably good to go.

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