A good memo: basis for decision-making and career building
Writing a correct, meaningful and therefore good memo is one of the most important skills in many professions these days: Not only does it provide structured information for superiors and is therefore of great importance for many decision-making processes in companies. This is exactly why memos are also called “template”, “statement” or “note” in many companies.
A well-researched and thought-out memo is also an important step in boosting your own career: Since it is usually written for superiors and colleagues, it is an excellent opportunity to draw attention to your own achievements and skills and to shine - and that especially for introverted natures who otherwise might not require much presence.
The tools of the trade: What is important for good memos
Everyone can write, it is often said. But far from it: Even if for many of us one of the main occupations in our job, not all of them have the necessary skills to write in a reader-friendly manner. Because especially with memos, a good understanding is important, as they form the basis of important decisions.
It's less about talent and more about some very basic techniques. It helps to make it clear in advance what the Sense of a memo exists at all: The aim of a good memo should be to describe the underlying problem or situation as precisely and objectively as possible. Memos are usually no longer than four pages, but there are also templates with more than 30 pages.
If you want to write a good memo, you should have one aspect in particular: Concentrate on what is important and essential, because the topic of your memo is usually just one of many problems that concern your supervisor or your colleagues.
Step 1: what's the point of your memo and who is your target audience?
Before you start writing, you need to clarify some basic questions:
- Who are the recipients? How much prior knowledge do they possess?
- When is it necessary to explain the background or context, and when?
- How important is the topic to the recipient (is it “loved” or “hated”)?
- How would the recipient wish to be informed? Is the recipient eye or ear-man, ie does he prefer to receive information in writing or verbally?
- Does the recipient require detailed information or a summary?
- Is the receiver fact-oriented or not?
- Who needs to comment on the topic or contribute his point of view, such as his own superiors, superiors of other departments, colleagues from his own department, colleagues from other departments as well as external experts (lawyers, consultants, tax consultants, experts ...)?
Depending on the answer to these questions, you will also choose your writing style: Resist the temptation to impress your superiors with swaggering syntax, technical terms or anglicisms. Your boss, who is short on time, particularly values legibility and the goal should always be that the reader can grasp your text quickly. Therefore, pay attention to meaningful, easily legible texts. For example, “We deliver on time” is more understandable and shorter than “We guarantee punctual delivery”.
Step 2: Focus on the essentials
The recipient must be able to immediately classify the problem or the facts. Therefore, first try to indicate the priority. For classification, I recommend the so-called “Eisenhower method” (named after the American general and president Dwight D. Eisenhower).
This results in the following combinations of importance and urgency:
- Type 1: rapid, but minor importance;
- Type 2: urgent and high importance;
- Type 3: slight urgency, but high importance;
- anything else is not suitable for memos.
Always remember: reader-friendly texts are seldom created in one go. So leave the text for half a day and then go through it again.
Step 3: generate interest with the right subject
The subject line of a memo is critical. This should also arouse the reader's interest. Briefly and precisely describe the problem or issue, ideally as a question. So not: "Restructuring the sales system", but: "How should we restructure our sales system?"
Because it always applies: Memos are for information or decision-making purposes, they should be short and precise. In general, as detailed as possible and as short as possible.
Step 4: make sure you use the right style
But not only the subject is important. In order for your memo to be read and understood, there are a few basic stylistic tips you should keep in mind:
- Check the sentence length: According to many studies, sentences of up to 14 words are considered reader-friendly. That is certainly not an absolute limit, but it can be a guide. Heavily nested sentences should be checked to see whether they can be split into two sentences.
- Omit negative phrases: "Don't think about the pink elephant." Such formulations trigger exactly the opposite. Often, negative expressions are difficult to understand, such as "I didn't park near here."
- Avoid words that are too long: Words two to three syllables in length are the easiest and best to read. Please only use foreign words if they aptly summarize complex issues. I find it difficult when they obscure the indeterminate and simulate a clarity that I may not even have in my head.
- Check adjectives: "If you want to use an adjective, come to me on the 3rd floor and ask if it is necessary." There is little to add to the quote from French journalist and politician Georges Clemenceau: Most adjectives have a doubling effect and have little meaning. Shorten where possible.
- Reduce auxiliary verbs and subjunctive: "I would like to thank you for visiting our stand." What now? Does the writer want to say thank you or not? In short: "Thank you for visiting our booth." Or: "Thank you for visiting our booth." The same applies to modal verbs such as “can” or “should”: They can often be deleted without replacement.
Step 5: Present the facts precisely and classify them correctly
Before you begin the actual discussion, you should let the recipient know what to expect from them. However, urgency should not be appropriate.
Keep an eye on the recipient
As a recipient, you read a text differently if you know that something has to be decided than if you should only take note of something. For example, you could use the following categories: "Take note", "Decide until ...", "Have a conversation" or "Take action".
Considering the variety of topics that can be discussed in memos, it is difficult to recommend a general outline. It is always helpful, however, to check whether all important aspects have been mentioned by means of W questions: Who? What? When? Where? As? Why? By which? How long?
Mark important statements with subheadings
If your memo is longer, you should summarize key statements in (active) subheadings. Also write an executive summary that precedes your remarks. Memos should not only convey information, but also reflect your own opinions and assessments in order to force decisions.
If you write to several recipients who have different degrees of good knowledge of the underlying topic, you can outsource detailed and further information in attachments. For example, a history or history, calculations, legal foundations or details of alternative solutions are suitable (see step 7).
Put the matter in a correct context
After you have described the problem or the facts, you should go a step further and try to establish a reference to the topic of the company strategy or the profit target.
What exactly is meant by this? The receivers of memos are, as I said, usually the superiors. And they think strategically and profit-oriented (at least they should do that). Therefore, always show - as far as possible - how your proposal helps to achieve the company strategy or increase the profit.
Step 6: Provide decision-making support and offer alternatives with advantages and disadvantages
Now follows the most exciting part for the receiver, namely the part where you submit your suggestions for solutions. Here are a few tips:
- Find meaningful terms for alternative solutions (for example "minimal solution", "comfort solution" or "savings package").
- Keep in mind that the alternatives are different.
- Limit the “solution space” - do not work out too many variants.
- Say what is needed to implement the solutions - in terms of time, money and personnel.
- Use a graphical representation (such as a decision tree) for explanation.
Name the alternative of not acting
Frequently in the representation of solutions one possibility is overlooked: namely, to do nothing. Sometimes this can be a quite reasonable alternative. So tell what happens if the problem is not solved. Enter the advantages and disadvantages of non-trading.
Working with scenarios and categories
It may also be useful to design scenarios (“best case”, “worst case”), that is, to predict how a problem or situation will develop if nothing is done.
So once again as a reminder: the recipient of your memo reads your text very differently if he or she knows that something has to be decided. That is why I have already recommended that you use different categories such as “Take note”, “Decide until…”, “Have a conversation” or “Take action”.
This almost automatically follows: If your memo is longer, you should summarize key statements in (actively formulated) subheadings. Also write an executive summary that precedes your remarks.
Step 7: Make a recommendation and name the next step
In conclusion, your judgment is required. Facilitate the decision by choosing an alternative. Justify your opinion with coherent arguments and examples.
Your own point of view
If you can not clearly decide on a solution, or if other departments or colleagues may be of the opposite opinion, then for the sake of fairness, all points of view.
In order to speed up the decision-making and the implementation process, you should also clarify what is to be done in the next step from who until when. Finally, give an outlook:
What is the “final state”? For example: "If we manage to implement the new distribution system by the end of 2011, we will be able to increase our market share by 30 percent."
Step 8: Correct the memo again
As with letters, eMails and other types of text as well, is the last step to be corrected, again in terms of content, spelling, punctuation, style, comprehensibility and form. Now ask yourself the most important question:
Does my memo make the decision or understanding easier for the recipient? If you can answer “yes”, you may circulate your memo. If you have any doubts, you have to lend a hand again.
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