If you have to communicate something to your colleague, boss, or a group of people in your work environment, what do you do? Think!! Many ways, right?
Maybe you call them. You might send a letter, an email, or a text. What about a Skype chat, Slack, or WhatsApp? You might even drop a sticky note at their desk!
Well, all these ways fall under any of the two categories of communication — formal and informal. Sometimes, informal communication is referred to as casual communication.
Let’s only talk about the formal category. An email, letter, or formal invite and convey of a message. There is one method that’s been used way back from the 1800s era of business — a memo!
Have you heard of it? Definitely in one way or another. But what is it? When do you use one? What should be in it? And how effectively can we use it as a powerful tool for formal communication? Let’s learn in-depth here…
Table of contents
- What is a memo?
- Different types of memos
- When to write a memo
- What does a good memo have?
- Tips for writing a good memo
- Can you write just anything in a memo?
- When do product managers need memos?
What is a memo?
Memo is short for “memorandum.” In Latin, memorandum means “that to be remembered.”
In business, you might need to send many messages — to your team, to stakeholders, to customer groups, etc. — that need to be remembered. You might also receive important information from your HR department, the finance team, executives, the board of directors, etc.
These messages can also be urgent. At the end of the day, they’re all nothing but memos. Let’s define what that means:
A memo is a brief, formal document usually shared with an internal group of people to convey information, bringing it to the group’s immediate attention, effective immediately.
A memo can be any information you want your group to remember and act on. Maybe it’s an update to the operational process, an update for a financial reimbursement policy, a delay in the project timeline, a risk that is occurring and unforeseen, etc.
You see, all this information needs to be remembered by the audience you are sharing with and needs to be acted upon accordingly. In law, you would see MOUs or MOAs. They’re actually external documents, whereas, in business, a memo is mostly used for internal groups.
Different types of memos
If you search for this online or talk to a few old-time leaders in the organization, you’ll probably see or hear about the following types of memos:
- Meeting minutes or summary memos
- Reporting memos
- Incident or root-cause memos
- Inquiry or response memos
- Directives or procedure memos
- Progress or status memos
- Warning or notice memos
They’re self-explanatory. If you try to categorize your memos, you will definitely have the above ones on your list (and maybe more).
Writing a memo is an art rather than a standard.
No standards need to be followed. Rather, you should know when to write a memo and what to include in your memo. Let’s talk about that now.
When to write a memo
You should write a memo when
- Information should be brought to the immediate attention of the audience/group
- Information needs to be acted upon
You might be thinking, is this not why we have “for your information,” “for your reference,” or “for immediate action” emails that we send and receive? A short thought for modern-day communication would be yes. But, a memo has much more to that because it’s more formal.
All the types of memos mentioned above fall in one or both of the scenarios we mentioned here.
What does a good memo have?
Now that we know when to write a memo, a very important next step is to learn how to write one and what should be there in it to call it a good memo. You might be thinking that there should be some format to write a memo, and yes, there is one. But that doesn’t limit you to follow the same.
Let’s write an example memo to see how exactly it can look and cover our bases of a popular format for you to start with:
The above is the memo I wrote to my sales team sometime back. I edited it to remove actual feature names and call them just Features A and B, changed the actual dates to current ones, and added marker text in bold for you to identify each section. I also added headers to show you more formal information, even though it was an email I sent to the sales department.
Do you think I wrote a good memo? 🙂
Well, not so important. The important part is its different sections. Let’s look at them one by one:
When you write a hard copy on paper or in a PDF document, you’ll probably see it more evident. But in an email, you might not notice it.
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The header is the first part of the memo. It has the following:
- Date — a date when it is sent or when it will be effective unless mentioned otherwise
- To — a recipient; usually, a group to whom the information or action applies to
- From — yourself usually. It is the person, well-defined group, or entity sending the memo
- Subject — a line that tells most of the information in the memo. It actually previews what the memo is all about
The name says it all. It is a brief explanation of what we are about to cover in the entire memo. This is the most powerful part of a memo. It gives the reader an objective and clear understanding. A good memo ensures that this section covers:
- A clear purpose of the writing
- An objective of the writing that can also become actionable
This section of the memo is subjective to the kind of memo you are writing. Most of the time, you need the audience to have a certain background or context to understand the memo.
Maybe in a case where you are sending information to your own team about a line item that they already know, you skip it and that’s absolutely fine. But a good memo always gives a background and sets the context for the reader before publishing its story and action.
Anything you call it, it is the main part of the memo — the actual message you are conveying to the audience.
In my above example, I have it clubbed in the background paragraph and that’s absolutely fine. The intent is to ensure the intent is conveyed to the audience.
There may or may not be any action(s) for the audience to take. But if there is, you should always convey it as a separate section (paragraph) in your memo.
Wrapping it up/conclusion
Always conclude your write-up. The two main reasons to write a conclusion are:
- To summarize — this ensures the message is repeated and is remembered well. It’s also so the reader knows the important steps that need to be taken or remembered from this memo
- To lighten up — this ensures the message is perceived in the right way and got the message across without leaving panic or worry
In the above example, I have written the “cover” style conclusion rather than the summary. This is because the news I shared is not positive and there was a need for me to reduce the panic of it. What to conclude with is on you, but a good memo always finishes with the right message to the audience.
Tips for writing a good memo
You can use all the creativity you have, templates you find online or from Microsoft Office, and think “I have written it the best way possible.” And, of course, it may be the best for you. But, it may not be the best for the audience. Maybe they don’t take it well and have questions. What do you think the best memo is? To put it simply, what is a good memo?
You can find many tips online to keep it simple, to write the main point only, not to use emotional words, etc.
I don’t think these are bad, but these are subjective and contextual. These tips are good to know but better to decide based on your context.
Let’s learn what I have always followed. My personal tips on writing good memos are:
- Never forget to write the purpose at the beginning. The purpose always gives a clear objective to the reader about your intent to write this memo
- Never detail your subject line. I have seen lengthy subject lines telling it all. Some feel it’s easy and readers may not feel like they even need to open the letter/email. That’s bad. Ensure your subject line summarizes the memo in one line. It should encourage the reader to open up your letter/email and read, rather than having a thought that they already know what’s in the email and that they can skip over it
- You can skip certain sections depending on the context, but never exclude the conclusion of your memo. This is an important section where the reader needs to know what it means for them
- Never forget the situation in which you are writing the memo. The situation you are addressing has a lot of importance in how you direct your words. This is important, you are addressing a group of people and they have to receive it with the correct intent
- Never write a story that goes on for pages. In my entire career, there was no need for me to write more than a page. Your memo should be brief and only communicates the actual message and actions
And then there are certain tips that are common and must be followed. You should ensure:
- That you are addressing the correct group of people (audience)
- That you have dated it correctly. Also, be explicit if the date is effective as of (insert date)
- That you have a subject line. Some people really do miss this part
- That you understand the objections after reading your message and address those in your memo upfront
- That you have formatted the memo correctly and cleanly
Can you write just anything in a memo?
Once my colleague from another team wrote a memo of appreciation to my team members. I never thought MOA could also stand for this 🙂
There was no action to take and there was no information that needed immediate attention.
An appreciation is an email or a letter, but it cannot be a memo. Likewise, people often confuse themselves when they are addressing a group with a piece of information. Not everything can fit in a memo even though you are writing it to a group.
An appreciation, a request, a call-out, a vacation plan, etc. don’t become a memo. You have to understand that a memo is for an audience to remember in the foregoing contexts and to take action accordingly. Use a memo as a tool only when you have that kind of information to publish.
When do product managers need memos?
If you are a product manager and thinking “why does a product manager need to write a memo?” I do and have been using memos to communicate for many years.
Likewise, product managers have many cases where they communicate status, progress, and risks to stakeholders, administrative groups, executive groups, customer groups, and more. And all these have actions that need to be communicated.
A memo written in a good format helps PMs communicate the intent correctly and provide the right set of actions to their audience. A memo becomes a powerful tool for a product manager when they learn to write them effectively and know when to use them properly.
Let’s wrap up. You have read it till now and say you have understood the art of the memo! A memo is a document that helps you write key information that needs immediate attention.
It is a powerful tool if you know how and when to use it. You are not limited to writing in a specific format, but a good memo that can clearly give out the message you want to convey and meet your objective(s). It should have a header, purpose, background, actual message, action, and conclusion. Remember:
Writing a memo is an art rather than a standard.
Hence, write about your situation to convey your message rather than following or copying a template.
Signing off for now…thank you!
Featured image source: IconScout
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