Written communication is going through a renaissance of sorts. With the rise of remote work, the ability to express thoughts in a clear and organized manner is in high demand. But while asynchronous communication these days is mostly about chat, emails and texts, there's another writing skill you should master---how to write a memo.
Memos (*memorandums *for short) aren't only a domain of high-profile CEOs. They're a great, universal tool to build rapport with your team, improve team alignment and cultivate a culture of integrity and transparency. And yeah, they can make you a better writer too.
This article is part of our series on effective communication:
- 💬 Synchronous vs. Asynchronous Communication
- 🤬 Overcome Poor Communication in a Distributed Team
- 📹 The Evolution of Video Conferencing
- 🤝 Remote Mentoring and Team Onboarding
Today, we dig deep into the lost art of writing memos and answer some interesting questions while doing so:
- 👉 What is a memo?
- 👉 What is a memo used for?
- 👉 Are memos still a thing in 2020?
- 👉 How to write a memo for a distributed team?
📚 For the purpose of this article, we'll be referring to parts of Purdue University's OWL guide and the U.S. Army Regulation 25--5 on Preparing and Managing Correspondence. You'll find these as well as other useful resources linked at the bottom of the page.
"Memos are brief printed documents traditionally used for routine, day-to-day communication within organizations (...) They accomplish their goals by informing the reader about new information like policy changes, price increases, or by persuading the reader to take an action, such as attend a meeting, or change a current production procedure."
---Purdue College of Liberal Arts, OWL
A memo is an essential communication medium used by businesses and organizations across the board. It's a more (or less) formal type of document that's usually unidirectional in a sense that involves one sender and many addresses.
To give you a more visual example, take a look at the opening lines of Jeffrey Katzenberg's memo on the condition of Disney's business back in the early '90s. 👇
While memos can often run several or dozens of pages long, they do so with sharp focus and efficiency of expression. The best memos are explicit, have a well-thought-out structure and get to the point right from the start.
As an "efficient" medium of expression, memorandums are a staple in military communication. As noted by LaShunda Wilkison who specializes in copywriting for the army personnel:
💬 "The ability to write a professional Army memo is a necessity for any service member. The Army sets high standards and provides specific guidelines for non-ambiguous, clear writing in Army Regulation 25-50, "Preparing and Managing Correspondence."
In terms of the structure, memorandums are pretty straightforward. If you know how to compose an email, you won't have any problems with grasping how to write a memo.
Purdue's OWL(1) suggests breaking down your document into the following "segments":
- ⚙️ Heading. Similarly to email or snail mail, the heading includes "To," "From," "Date" and "Subject" lines. It tells you who wrote the memo, who it's addressed to and what it's all about, e.g. "Change in Operation Hours"
- 🏁 Opening. The opening paragraph of a memo clearly states the purpose of the document and briefly introduces the readers to the story/issue
- ✅ Task. The task segment discusses what actions have already been taken in response to the situation. For instance: "Our R&D is already running additional tests (...)"
- 🗣 Discussion. This is the body of a memo. Every bit of research, findings, thoughts, arguments and observations goes in here
- 📑 Summary. Memo summaries are recommended for documents that are longer than one page. You can think of them as "key takeaways"
- 👋 Closing. The closing of a memo is where you discuss the specific outcome you expect and the actions the recipients should take. It's like the good ol' call-to-action (CTA)
- 🔗 Attachments. Finally, the attachments segment includes collaterals like charts, links, external resources and statistics you used and referred to throughout the document
Regardless if you're part of a co-located or distributed team, the key use of memos boils down to internal, formal business communication. You can write a memorandum to either inform your team or company about something or elicit a specific action.
Here are some typical use cases:
Are things going as planned? Is the project on track? Given the current progress, is the original deadline still within reach? Memos can also be a great way to motivate the rest of the team to keep up the pace.
And speaking of motivation... here's an example of a 10-page memo sent to Microsoft's applications developers and testers in 1989. 👇
You can pen a memo to announce important company events like:
- 👾 Coding bootcamps
- 🤝 Annual meetups
- 🏝 Company retreats
- 🥳 Festivals and holidays
Unlike emails or chat messages, memos are formal documents. And that alone makes them very effective at eliciting attention, preparation and attendance.
Memos are perfect for addressing critical changes to internal company policies and procedures. Does your IT department want all WFH employees to use a VPN? All you have to do is send out a memo to let your team know why it's important and what they should do to comply.
A memo is especially well-suited for discussing what's happening in and around the business, especially when things go south.
- 💸 Cash flow problems
- 📉 Budget cuts
- 🔁 HR rotations
- 🔌 System outages
As a formal document, memorandums should detail how the situation is being handled, how it will affect the staff and what they can do to help.
Since memos dig deep into the issues they discuss, they're perfect for briefing the team before company or team-wide calls and video conferences. A memorandum can even include a meeting agenda or a list of topics that'll be discussed during the meeting.
Want to make sure works gets done on time? Don't want your emails and chat messages to get lost in the crowd? Type a memo to make sure the important stuff is always in focus.
For instance, you can remind your team to:
- 🔴 Log out of company systems when they finish work at home
- 💾 Save all documents before ending a session
- 🔔 Notify the rest of the team when they're done editing a document
- 🤫 Keeping offtopic out of the team chat
While memos are technically internal documents, history has shown that they do surface and reach the public more often than not. For that reason, it's probably not the best idea to include any sensitive information that could damage the reputation of the team or company.
Let's face it. Although we live in the communication age, effective written communication has become somewhat of a unicorn. Sure, we've become particularly skilled at instant messaging, rapid email exchanges and texting. But writing in-depth, well-structured documents isn't exactly the smash hit of the modern workplace.
Now, as more businesses are adopting a fully distributed model, asynchronous written communication becomes a staple. And, it turns out, writing memos is one of the best exercises to flex those communication muscles.
According to the man himself, Amazon's CEO Jeff Bezos:
"The reason writing a 'good' four page memo is harder than 'writing' a 20-page PowerPoint is because the narrative structure of a good memo forces better thought and better understanding of what's more important than what."
While Bezos' observation comes from a 2004 email he sent to the Amazon team, it's even more relevant than it was back then. Unlike any other method of business communication, writing memos requires a serious investment of time and attention.
Typing memorandums for your distributed team is the best way to master the art of effective, asynchronous communication. It compels you, as a writer, to go deep under the surface of the issue, organize your thoughts, focus on the audience and find out what's in for them.
Memos have the substance no other medium, including chat or email, can carry. When you take your time and send out a memorandum, you tell your team, "Hey, I have some really important news for you."
But that's not all.
Memos are a footprint of a significant change, event, or issue unfolding within the team or company. It's a written record people can refer to in the future. And since most memos are formal documents, they keep your accountability as the author high.
Memos can help you build rapport with your distributed team. They show that you care about the quality and quantity of communication, are transparent about what's happening at the company and trust the rest of the team with critical business intel.
Unlike direct messages (DMs) where two employees communicate with each other, memos are a group address. They involve everybody in the exchange of information, which makes them particularly useful for encouraging open conversations.
This is key in distributed teams that tend to fall into communication silos. Many remoters don't have the incentive to spontaneously reach out to their colleagues. Communication happens out of necessity, either to talk over project details or solve problems.
While memos are technically unidirectional, they can encourage all members of your distributed team to pick up the discussion. They create a culture of visibility where open, transparent communication is a norm rather than an exception.
As you can see, memos are pretty powerful stuff. They're not as easy to turn out as a quick chat message or an email, but they're definitely way more effective (and satisfying).
One finely crafted memorandum that's taken days or weeks to write, edit and polish can drive significant change in any type of organization.
So, how do you write a killer memo for your distributed team?
Of course, you don't want to type a memo for every video meetup or misc event coming your team's way. So, before you start writing, ask yourself the following questions:
- Is a memo the right way to communicate in this situation?
- Wouldn't a short email or video meetup suffice?
- Do I have enough intel on the issue?
- Am I trying to avoid direct confrontation?
Memos are all about making an impact. That's why you should focus on one essential piece of information per document. If you try to include too much important stuff, chances are people won't know what they should pay attention to. When everything is important, nothing is.
- State the purpose of the document in the first paragraph
- Keep the subject in focus across the entire text
- Follow the rule of "one memo, one idea"
- Build your memo on strong, relevant arguments
If you want to flex your vocabulary, memos are not the place to do that. Since memos address mixed groups of employees that come from different teams and departments, you should adjust the language so they're accessible to everyone involved.
- Put clarity and accessibility first
- Cut jargon and technical terms
- Use active sentence construction
- Adjust the tone to match your audience
- Keep your sentences and paragraphs short
The difficulty and appeal of memos clash in structure. One the one hand, you want to write a document that digs deep into the issue and discusses it in the most complete way. On the other, planning out all the arguments and bits of research can be a tedious exercise.
Here are a handful of pointers that'll get you started:
- Present your arguments from the strongest to the weakest
- Describe the subject top-down, increasing granularity as you go
- Use headlines and subheadings to help readers navigate the memo
- If you expect a specific action in response, always include a call-to-action (CTA)
Writing memos requires time and intellectual investment. If you want to get the best bang for your effort, be sure to fix any typos and style inconsistencies before hitting send.
- Don't skip proofreading and editing
- When done, proofread again, rinse and repeat
- Offer an early sneak peek for feedback and suggestions
- If you don't enjoy reading it, your employees won't enjoy it either
Formal? Sure. Boring? Not really.
While most memos mean official company business, they don't have to bore your readers with solid blocks of text. We're not saying you have to stuff the document full of interesting charts, images or whatnot, but...
A little styling can get your memo a long way:
- Highlights key information with colors
- Experiment with special characters ✏
- Bold, underline and italicize where appropriate
- Explore different types of heads and subheads (H1, H2, H3)
Learning how to write a memo for your distributed team takes time and perseverance. The good news is, writing it doesn't have to be that difficult. Why don't you make use of these great features and create your little masterpiece with Taskade?
Don't know how to structure your memo? Not sure where to start? Taskade comes with hundreds of editable templates that'll let you kick off any kind of writing project. You can pick up one of the free templates we have onboard or create your own.
Here's one for your first memo. 👇
In case that Hemingway spirit moves ya, go ahead and take a peek at other writing templates too:
- ✍️ Boost Your Writing Productivity
- 🎯 Write a Marketing Plan
- 💡 Create a Bullet Journal
- ✏️ Take Great Meeting Notes
- 🎭 Draft a Team Review
Did you know that you don't have to use email to send memos to your distributed team? Instead, you can turn Taskade's Workspaces and Subspaces into a digital bulletin board.
Just like this one. 👇
All you have to do is create a Project space, pick a template, fill it in and put it out there for the whole team to see. Once you're done, you can share access to the memo and set User Roles so only you can edit it.
You may also want to invite some team members for a sneak peek and let them contribute feedback and suggestions directly on the document (with Editor privileges).
Remember what we said earlier about experimenting with formatting?
Taskade lets you get really creative with your memos. You can apply colors, highlight key information, add images, set bullet list style and format the text any way you want.
Most memos are written in response to a specific situation. Others address ad-hoc changes in policies and procedures. Make sure that your employees know when these changes come into effect and when they no longer apply.
You can use Taskade scheduling features to:
- ⏰ Set start and end dates
- 📈 Establish milestones and goals
- 🗓 Visualize memos on a timeline
- 🔎 Display memos as an agenda
- And more...
The ability to write, something we often take for granted, is like a muscle. The more you use it, the stronger it gets. While texting and churning out emails won't make you break a sweat, learning how to write a memo (and do that right) will keep those gears turning. ⚙️
But that's not all.
(Remote) office memos are perfect for balancing autonomy and team alignment. On the one hand, they have the priority and importance no other medium has. On the other, memos are not as pervasive as emails and leave your distributed team some decision-making capacity.
In a way, learning how to write a memo, or any other business document for that matter, can become your remote work superpower! ⚡️
Here are a number of useful resources you can use to learn how to write a memo. We hope you'll enjoy them as much as we did and find plenty of inspiration inside.
- Purdue Online Writing Lab on writing memos (click).
- Army Regulation 25--5 on Preparing and Managing Correspondence (click).
- A catalog of famous memos by Sriram Krishnan (click).