Matthew W Ford
An Underrated Skill (Updated 02/24/2007 06:43 PM)
Writing effective internal company memos is an acquired skill (with some artistic component) that frequently distinguishes the great manager inside a company. Indeed, senior executives usually take notice of lower level managers who precisely communicate issues to decision-makers in written form.
The key to effective internal memos is that they communicate much in a small amount of space. A cardinal rule of great memo writing is this: All important information must appear on the first page.
This is perhaps why effective writers are noticed and valued by top managers. Senior executives with preciously little time to spend on any one of the hundreds of communications that pass by them daily must grasp the "punch line" in a hurry. One top manager told his staff that he wanted memos written so that he could digest them in three minutes while riding the subway from Midtown to lower Manhattan.
The following provides one way to organize an internal memo. This format is particularly applicable towards a memo that communicates the results of some project or investigation that has been assigned to the writer.
A final up-top note. Multi-page memos need to be stapled. Not clipped. Not folded near the top. Stapling ensures pages stay together--plus it makes reports easier to stack.
Want to see a sample Memo? Click here.
Almost all companies have a conventional heading that signals an internal memo. "Memorandum" (or "Memo") usually appears in bold letters either left- or center-justified at the top of the page. Other important information that appears at the top of page one includes:
Subject: (or Re:)
It should be noted that most word processors like Microsoft Word provide some nice templates for memo layout should you be looking for one.
If this is a memo designed to communicate the findings of some project or investigation assigned to the author, then the structure of the memo typically progresses as follows:
Introduction (or Background)
Two or three sentences that orient your reader about why your are writing to him or her. Your boss may not remember why he or she assigned you this project. In this section, refresh your boss's memory. This should not be an editorial (for example, don't include philosophy about how important this issue is to your company--your readers already know that). Rather, the Introduction should inform the reader about specific background info regarding the project you are writing about (for example, who, what, when, where, why). In most analytical memos, your tone should be unemotional and objective.
Avoid putting your conclusions or key points in this section--those things go in the next section.
Key PointsThis section may also be labeled "Recommendations", "Highlights", "Summary", "Conclusions", or something else with a similar summative tone.
This is where you place your key points for that busy executive that only has three minutes on the subway.
Key points are usually best communicated by listing them as single sentences or phrases (like we have done here). Avoid big blocks of narrative text--most busy readers have difficulties navigating large, wordy paragraphs.
Limit your key points to three or less.
In an analytical memo your three key points might consist of:
Your key points must all fit on the first page.
Data, Method, Assumptions. Before you engage in any analysis you need to tell your reader some things:
By informing your reader about these issues, they'll better know what to expect as they read on...
Specific Analysis. This section may also be labeled "Findings", "Details", "Results", or something else that signifies that this is where you provide the details of your analysis. This is for the reader that needs more specific information than the summary info presented in the key points listed above. A useful rule about the analysis section: It should be easy for the reader to clearly link the portions of your Analysis section with each point listed in the Key Points section above.
Positioning the Analysis Section. If there is room, begin your analysis section on the bottom of page one. If your analysis is fairly lengthy, consider using subheadings that divide your analysis into logical pieces. Notice that we have done this here by using bold-face phrases to signal the general content of each paragraph.
Use of Boldface for Headings and Subheadings. Just like we are doing here, use boldface and different size fonts to highlight section headings and subheadings. Today's word processing software makes it easy for the writer to use different font sizes and headings to guide the reader's eye through the report.
Paragraph Size. Avoid big blocks of narrative text. Large paragraphs are impossible to read quickly. Better to break up your thoughts into smaller size chunks. Augment them with boldfaced subheadings--just like we are doing here.
Use of Data. Most analytical reports require the incorporation of data in order to be convincing. Data provide a sense of objectivity and encourage "managing by fact". Data are usually expressed in either tables or graphs. They can be placed inside the analysis section (increasingly popular as word processors facilitate cut-and-paste) or at the end of the report as attachments. In either case, all tables and graphs should have a title and numerical reference (e.g., Table 2: Cost Data; Figure III: Sales Projections), and your analysis should make specific reference to each table or graph you have included in your report (e.g., "see Table 2"). Attaching the raw data used in your analysis is usually a good idea.
Limitations. What are the limitations of your analysis and findings? For example, the data that you use may be incomplete or suspect--you may need to note that to your reader. Indeed, a "Limitations" or similar section may be a chance to impose your superior grasp of the context that frames your project. Your reader will appreciate this.
What Not to Include. Never incorporate data that is not specifically referenced in your analysis. Do not end the memo with your conclusions! They should be stated in list form on Page One.
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