“I love being a writer,” quipped novelist Peter Devries, “What I can’t stand is the paperwork.”

When it comes to writing memos, most business people would agree. Mounting evidence shows that memos may be small, but they give big headaches to everyone from secretaries to corporate officers. They are hard to write quickly and clearly, are like “War and Peace” to read, require Miss Marple to figure out, and, if written in the wrong tone of voice, can make the nicest people sound heartless.

In the office as well as out, your personality is often judged by how you write. Muddled memos can cost you dearly in career advancement. Communication skills are a top priority for business leadership — often more important than financial, marketing, and technical know-how. To keep getting raises and promotions, experts like Van Skiver and Booher say you need to write your own ticket. Here’s how:

What is a memo? What it’s not is a school essay. A memo is a written document that stays inside the company; if it goes outside, it’s a letter. A memo is also short. Most experts say two pages should be tops — after which a memo starts to turn into a report. If you can boil down even a two-page memo to two paragraphs that take up only a half-page and still convey the same facts, you get an A+ in business. Equally important, memos are written to get someone to do or understand something–be it to spend money, meet a deadline, constructively criticize, or say yes or no.

Get Personal. Use words like I, you, and we. It’s a lot more human to say, “I would like you to do this.” To get action, write in the active, not the passive, voice.

Be conversational. Write the way you talk. “Use contractions,” says Holly Church, a business consultant who trains Fortune 500 executives. “You probably say ‘I’m happy’ more often than you say ‘I am happy.'”

Don’t show off. Avoid scholarly words, technical jargon, and just plain gibberish like “as per your request” when you simply mean “Here’s what you wanted.” Or how about this: “R & D wants your input because temporal considerations are of primary importance.” Translation: “Our research people need your answer today.”

Avoid “smothered” words. Van Skiver explains that these are simple root words with fancy endings tacked on to puff them up. Favorites are “tion,” “ance,” “ent,” “ment,” “ize” and “ility.” For example: “The continuation of our issuance of incentives is dependent upon the prioritization by employees of company objectives.” Loosely translated: “If you want to keep getting incentives, meet company goals.”

If you’re not sure, check. “If there’s an error in the memo, it will probably be in names, dates, or numbers,” cautions Booher, and such mistakes may cost you dearly. One of Booher’s clients, an oil company, was sued by the families of two employees killed in an on-site accident. A specialist on the scene said that the company was to blame, but when the specialist described the incident on paper, he got the date wrong. This cast doubt on his credibility regarding everything he said he had witnessed, and the upshot was the company settled out of court.

Don’t be trite. One hackneyed expression Booher sees regularly is, “We’re sorry for any inconvenience this may have caused you,” which “just sends people up the wall,” she says.

“Nothing could be more insincere.” “Please don’t hesitate to call” is another phrase that gets no results and turns people off. A more sincere ending is, “If you need help, I’m available. Give me a call.”

Visualize the reader. Memos are usually written from the writer’s point of view, not the reader’s. Yet the reader usually has to do something when receiving a memo, and, not being a psychic, he is often not sure what it is. Experts suggest you pretend you’re having a face-to-face discussion or a telephone conversation with the memo recipient.

Make the bottom line the top line. Memos often begin with a statement of a problem, proceed to discuss why the problem exists, suggest a course of action, and conclude with something wishy-washy, like “I would like to hear from you soon.” The action you want the reader to take should be spelled out in the first line (or at least the first paragraph).

Don’t give too many whys. It’s necessary to explain why you want something done, but don’t overdo it. One expert cautions that a reader can probably only absorb no more than six or seven reasons at once. If you must cite more whys, put them on a separate sheet of paper, and staple the sheets together. This way, the basic memo message doesn’t get lost in a sea of details.

Keep paragraphs short. Limit each paragraph to five lines or less. Put each reason in a separate paragraph rather than bunching them up in a forbidding 20-line block of type.

Close with a call to action. Many memos don’t close with anything, leaving the reader hanging. If you want a response by Friday at 3 p.m., say so.

Excerpted from

“Quick, Take This Memo”

by Neil Chesanow

The Washington Post 9/17/87

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