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Did you miss the memo? The art of writing a memo that gets read

National Memo Day is coming up on May 21st, so now is the time to brush up your business writing skills in the oft-overlooked art.

A memo—short for memorandum, a Latin term meaning “to call to mind, mention, recount, or relate”—is a document distributed to a group of people who all need to know the same thing at the same time. According to the Purdue Online Writing Lab, memos either bring attention to problems or solve problems. They can be an effective form of communication—if the recipients actually read them.

Given the volume of messages most people receive in a day, it can be challenging to hold someone’s attention for even fifteen seconds. Here are some tips and tricks to get your memos read:

Evaluate your topic. The first question you need to ask yourself before writing a memo is whether it needs to be written at all. According to The Wall Street Journal, “consider if it’s appropriate to trade the memo label for something more direct: try something like ‘Client News’ or ‘Marketing Update.’ If the news is grim, like layoffs or slashed earnings projections, consider delivering the news in person instead.”

Use a template. If your news is memo-worthy, make the task of writing easier by using a template. Like press releases and other formal documents, memos should follow a specific style of formatting. Unlike casual email announcements, they follow a strict format that includes a header, opening, summary, and closing. Microsoft Word has several memo templates available (you can find out how to download them here). You can also find examples of the formatting online and pattern your own memo after them.

Include the right information. Before you begin writing, create a quick outline by answering the “Five Ws (and an H)”: Who, What, Where, When, Why (and How). Who is the memo intended for, and who are the major players in the content of the message? What do you hope to achieve with the message? What locations, if any, are important? When did the event take place, or when does the recipient need to take action? Why is the message important? And finally, how do the recipients need to respond? Understanding these six points in advance will help you answer all the questions the recipients have upfront—and prevent you from having to send out additional memos to clarify your original message.

Keep it as short as possible. Your readers have limited time and attention, so respect them by delivering the facts quickly and efficiently without a lot of jargon. As the venerable Elements of Style by Strunk and White advises, “Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts.”

Edit! The final step is to edit your memo—preferably more than once—before you send it. Proofread it for typos (Grammarly’s automated proofreading tool can help) and reread it for clarity and consistency. If possible, ask someone else to read it over to ensure that it stays on topic and clearly conveys the point you want to make.

Memos may not be the most exciting form of prose, but they serve a necessary function in the business ecosystem. The most important thing to remember is to make the memo relevant to the reader. If the recipients can’t see how the content affects them, they may skim the memo or delete it altogether, so make sure to connect your purpose with their interests.

And never put anything in writing that you wouldn’t want to see splashed across the internet, as this law firm learn the hard way.

Do you write memos in your line of work?

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