Following the Format
A memo follows the usual layout of heading, opening, body, and close. The heading or subject line will help determine whether your memo will be taken seriously, let alone even read. Hit them hard there and you will get their attention. Subject lines like, "HAZMAT Concern," "Problems with Booking," and "Overuse of TASER" will stand out because they grab your attention immediately. Don't ever be generic or funny in this area or you will lose any sense of urgency.
The introduction is your opportunity to set the hook. It's here where you supply the reader with the background, problem, or mission statement. If you lose the reader here, your memo will be given a cursory treatment. Therefore, make your first sentence the strongest.
The body is where you find the supporting evidence for your communication. Here's where you list the points you want known or what you want done. You need to create a balance of information; write too much, you lose the reader. If you write too little, he or she won't understand. The writing cliché "less is more" aptly applies. Writing a concise memo is harder than writing a long one. This is why you see so much drivel in interoffice communication. So often the writer doesn't take the time to craft her documents. To make life easier, she quickly writes 10 words instead of thinking of the appropriate two.
A memo might require varying degrees of involvement. The body might need a tasking section or a discussion section. You may need to list assumptions or detail the pros and cons of an option. In addition, in order to bolster your point of view, you might have to provide additional attachments. You want to draw a picture for your reader. Anything that you can do to help make that picture come in clear and in focus will make your memo stronger and more effective.
The closing requires your attention because it's your last chance to make an impression on the reader. You might have to craft a short summary or hit upon your main point one more time. A closing shouldn't consist of just "thanks for your attention to this matter." Remember, you can lose your reader at any point in your writing. You need to start strong and finish strong.
Memo Writing Tips
Employing several simple techniques can take your memo from laughable to laudable. Remember to define the issue at hand by including the background, where you are now, and where you'd like to be. It's a good philosophy to outline the problem and provide a series of solutions. Unless you are totally clueless, a decision-maker wants to see you have put thought into the issue and are not just passing the buck. Watch your tone; don't let an emotionally charged topic get the better of you. Use facts, make a logical argument, and always try to include options. No one likes to be hemmed in. And don't try to surround your idea with less desirable ones as a ploy. It's an old con that seldom survives a question and answer period.
Make sure to outline your points systematically. If you know how to write a decent police report then you should already know how to do this. Police reports are written chronologically, categorically, or in some type of combination of both. No one wants to read something that takes forever to get to the point or bounces all over the place going nowhere.
Take your reader from Point A to Point B as painlessly as possible. If you are giving instructions, make sure they are clear and easy to follow. If there is any wiggle room, outline where and when the reader can apply his own judgment. If you don't and he ends up not doing what you wanted, it's your fault, not his.
Above all, approach memo-writing from a standpoint of practicality. Try to keep your memo at one page but no more than two. Anything longer is not a memo and should be handled differently. Your memos are public record and subject to freedom of information-type legislation. Write them well unless you want the world to think you're an idiot. Place only the information necessary to get your point across. And always follow-up after you write it. It will help you combat the bureaucrat who deflects criticism by saying he didn't get it or doesn't remember. Of course, it's your name on the memo and not mine, so feel free to write it however you wish; it's just paper. But then again, it's you they'll be calling onto the carpet, not me.
Amaury Murgado is a special operations lieutenant with the Osceola County (Fla.) Sheriff's Office. He is a retired master sergeant from the Army Reserve, has 24 years of law enforcement experience, and has been a lifelong student of martial arts.