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The Art of Memo Writing

Crafting a focused message targeting the right audience is key to getting your point across.

September 22, 2011  |  by Amaury Murgado - Also by this author

Photo: Amaury Murgado.
Photo: Amaury Murgado.
Writing memos is not a particularly fun topic. It's not as interesting as, say, firearms or combatives, but it's an important part of the job nonetheless. Have you ever read a poorly written memo? I have, and it's embarrassing. We want to be considered professionals and yet we often write drivel. Memos are filled with misspelled words and grammar errors, but what's even worse is when the writing creates more questions than it answers. It's especially embarrassing when such a memo comes from someone who gets paid a great deal more money because of his or her rank and position.

There is an ebb and flow to writing memos. The goal of any memo is either to bring attention to a problem by providing information, or to solve a problem by defining what action should be taken. Let's look at how to do this by identifying the target audience, defining what they need to know, and placing the information in a successful format.

Identifying your Audience

Your target group should be limited. Communicating with any group larger than a handful should instead be handled via a training bulletin, policy and procedure, or a letter of instruction. Sensitive issues are often best handled in person.

Your target audience will usually consist of decision-makers. That means answering two questions up front: who you are writing to and why they need to know. Consider their position, responsibilities, and what projects they are already connected to. Since all law enforcement has a bureaucratic and politically charged structure, each recipient you are writing to is not just a position or title. It's a human being, and you need to know something about that person in order to be effective.

For example, how does he perceive bad news? Is he open-minded? And what has been your experience with him? Sometimes having someone else write the memo, even if it is your idea, gives it a better chance of success. Take some time to think about how the information will be received.

Why your target audience needs to know is equally important. The military has a simple philosophy on handing information; they use "the need to know" as a paradigm. In the age of e-mails, the Internet, and intranets, we "cc" the crap out of everybody in an effort to CYA. But it's usually unnecessary and an annoyance. As a unit commander, I already had enough paperwork to deal with so I always appreciated a carefully crafted memo that was actually relevant to me in some way. Usually memos that I received were split equally between a project file and the trash. They're either useful or they're not.

Don't be the person who writes a memo for everything. There is still such a thing as a phone call, as well as bumping into someone in a hallway, or just plain going to speak to someone in his or her office.

What They Need to Know

Once you identify the who and why of a memo, you need to focus on the what. Memos by nature contain very specific and focused information, so don't ramble. If you are bringing attention to something then it's important to include a brief background, specific points that you are making about the issue, and finally what it is you want back from the reader. In other words, include anything the reader would need to make an informed decision.

For example, let's say you're a supervisor and you are having a disciplinary problem with one of your subordinates. You formulate a memo that asks to invoke a formal disciplinary process. In this example, you must include the background that led to this point, what you have already done in order to try to correct the problem, disciplinary history, what policy violations are involved, and what it is you need back from the reader to continue. If there is enough information to suggest a policy violation, then the last item covered should be seeking permission to go forward with an internal affairs investigation.                 

On the other hand, if you are not asking something but are giving instructions to take some type of action, you still mention the background, but you then add where you are with the issue, and state how you want it handled. With an action memo, you need to include all the information necessary for the reader to become successful in completing the task. This means including the parameters, limitations, and the date when it needs to be completed. You can expect clarifying questions; minimize them by being as thorough as possible. Your failure to describe what you want done will result in the recipient's failure to get it done.

As a sergeant I worked for a lieutenant who never told me anything except "Get it done." When I asked questions, his response would make you think I had personally insulted him. Then, when I handled it the way I thought it needed to be handled, he would tear my work product apart. Help your people become successful and don't waste their time. Otherwise they will certainly waste yours.

Comments (3)

Displaying 1 - 3 of 3

DaveSAM25G @ 9/26/2011 11:11 PM

Good one (TY)....!!

Nelida Payton @ 7/7/2016 7:20 AM

Interesting piece . For what it's worth , others are wanting a ISO Form CG 20 , my secretary filled out a template form here

Donald V Westbrooks @ 1/30/2017 8:29 AM

currently taking a Administration of Justice class (Report writing class) and looking for ways to write memos to a Chief of police for an assignment.

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