Memo and Email Tips
Memos, letters, and email messages are an essential part of conducting business or operating a non-profit organization. When we speak of “paper trails” we are generally speaking of these common documents because of the sheer number of pages composed on a weekly basis. Memos and emails serve several purposes, including:
- To call attention to potential issues so they can be resolved;
- To propose actions or solutions to identified issues;
- To document actions or suggestions for future reference; and
- To update colleagues and clients on the status of projects.
Structure and Content
A memo or email should be concise, compelling, and complete. Unlike some business correspondence, these are meant to be brief: seldom more than one page, and usually much shorter. The basic structure of a memo or email is:
- Routing information at the top;
- Statement of the issue or action being discussed;
- Proposed contribution or solution;
- Background information, as needed;
- Confirmation of any schedules; and
- Signature line with contact information.
The structure will vary based on the situation being discussed. The outline provided above is only a basic suggestion, not an outline for all possible memos.
To meet the purposes of business, correspondence should have complete routing information to indicate the author(s), the recipient(s), and the subject matter. Dating documents is standard procedure in business, as well. Routing should be professional; do not use nicknames or casual language in routing information.
Unless absolutely necessary, do not carbon copy (cc:) or blind carbon copy (bcc:) anyone who does not need to read the correspondence. Because there is too much email and too many memos, it is best to limit correspondence to essential matters. Your co-workers and clients will appreciate this.
First Paragraph ‘Ledes’
Business correspondence should be prepared using an “inverted pyramid” scheme: the most important information comes first. This style is similar to modern journalism, with the lede (also called a hook) as the opening paragraph. The first paragraph makes the purpose clear, but not in the “academic” style. Never begin a memo with: “In this memo I will….”
Supporting information is discussed in following paragraphs, tables, numbered lists, or bullet items. Lists, numbered or bulleted, are effective because they summarize the current situation or offer a checklist for future reference. You should never begin a memo or email with a list; always introduce your topic first. You cannot assume the subject line is a sufficient introduction.
The background information provided should not raise more questions than are answered about the actions desired. A memo should not raise dozens of concerns or questions because it is always best to solve one problem at a time in a business setting. An exception to this is if you are asked to generate a list of questions for a co-worker or supervisor.
Always include any deadlines you plan to meet or that need to be altered. Use correspondence as a way to document timelines. If you are on schedule, do not merely write, “We are on schedule.” Add something such as, “…to complete the design on May 15, 2007.” Only give dates for actions you can control. Do not make schedules for other individuals without consulting with them.
Closing a document can be as simple as including a signature line with contact phone number and email address. Some companies also include a Web URL as part of all correspondence. Whether composing an email or a memo, use only a professional email address. When communicating on behalf of a company or organization only an official email address should be used.
Whether for internal use only or if intended for a customer, your memos and emails will be judged by whether or not they feature proper spelling, grammar, and general mechanics.
Stylistically, what we call “ongoing” or “regular” business correspondence differs from personal letters or sales letters. You want to limit yourself to factual data when possible. Assuming an ongoing professional relationship among the individuals communicating, you want to avoid the following:
- Sounding too casual (clients and superiors want respect) or too “academic” (often perceived as condescending in business);
- Using language that seems clichéd or overused, especially when discussing common tasks or concepts; and
- Selling yourself, your team, or your organization.
A memo or email should read professionally, neither too casual nor too “stilted” in style. You should avoid complicated “impressive” words and phrases when simple words suffice. (Ex: utilize = use; in order to = to; will work to produce = will; etc.) Do not use clichés, jargon, or colloquialisms. Avoid “sayings.”
Possibly the impulse hardest to control is the “sales” impulse we develop early in our careers. Too much enthusiasm can feel manipulative. Instead of hyperbolic statements and gushing enthusiasm, rely on solid editing and professionalism to sell your work.
Start with the assumption that business leaders expect some formality within documents. There are business cultures that have more fun with documents, but you should analyze the communications around you before trying a sense of humor. Remember, sarcasm a friend or colleague understands might confuse a client — or a future jury.