You’ve probably heard a lot of people talk about how important good writing is for your career. And guess what, they’re right!
But even if you buy that, you might be asking yourself: what’s so important about memos?
I’ll let you in on a poorly kept secret: the world runs on memos! They are one of the most important tools organizations use to make decisions. Regardless of what they’re called or where you work, every organization…private, non-profit, government…they all use memos to help their leaders make crucial decisions…decisions that could make or break a company, save lives, or even prevent an international conflict.
That means that learning to write killer memos is really important for you, as well as a tremendous opportunity to do two things.
First, learning to write killer memos can help relieve a lot of the stress you feel about your writing. Have you ever gotten a writing assignment and had no idea how to get started? Do you worry that your writing isn’t impressing your boss? Or maybe you just got a new job and you’ve never written a memo before. If you feel this way, and you’re not alone…I’m sure pretty much all of us at one time or another have felt that way…mastering the art of memo writing can take the fear out of writing and help you increase your confidence in your work. And that is a great feeling to have.
Second, learning to write really great memos can also help you advance in your career. Writing a killer memo that helps your boss or your organization make the right decision can literally make your career. When you’re confident in your writing, you’re going to volunteer to take on more important assignments, and when your writing is great, you’ll show your leadership that you’re a cut above the rest. Everyone is going to notice.
The problem is, if you’re like most people, no one ever taught you how to write a memo, much less a killer memo. If you’re having trouble writing or you’re worried that your writing is holding you back, let me assure you that you are not alone.
Writing is hard, especially a policy memo, analytic report, or risk assessment. Every semester when my students turn in their first memo assignments, they tell me how much more difficult it was compared to what they thought it was going to be. And that’s because the memo is actually a very demanding format, especially policy or decision memos that require a lot of analysis and persuasive argumentation.
What Is a Killer Memo, Anyway?
Remember that a memo – whether it’s a policy memo, an intelligence report, a risk analysis, or what have you, is just a document that uses information, analysis, and argument to help people to make decisions and take actions.
And writing a really good one, what I call a killer memo, requires the five C’s:
It has to be:
- Compelling: Your memo has to deliver critical information on important topics or no one is going to pay any attention to it
- Concise: Your bosses and leaders are too busy to read; every word has to count
- Credible: Your work must be grounded in authoritative research and objective analysis
- Clear: Your writing must make your analysis and arguments easy to follow
- Convincing: Finally, if your memo fails to convince its readers, your memo has failed its primary mission
How Do I Write a Killer Memo?
And now you’re saying, okay, that sounds like a big task, how do I do that? And that’s a great question because the problem for most of us is that we were never taught how to write a killer memo like this.
And that’s why, after years of working with my students, I developed a five-step process for writing killer memos. I don’t have time in this short video to get into the nitty gritty of each step, but I think the high-level outline will give you a good sense of how it works:
The first step is all about figuring out what your memo’s mission is and you’ll figure this out by asking
- Who will read this memo?
- Why does my audience need this memo?
- What should my audience be able to do once they have read the memo that they cannot do today?
The second step is to create and apply a powerful analytical framework to the question at hand.
To help your organization figure out what software to buy, what product to build, or what strategy to embrace, your memo has to provide information about the options, analysis about the strengths and weaknesses of each option, and, if you are asked to give one, an argument about which option is the best.
This is the hardest step in the process because it takes the most brainpower and creativity, but it’s also the place where you can make the biggest impact on the way people think.
Step three is to organize your information and analysis for maximum impact.
All the great analysis in the world can’t save a poorly organized memo. You’ve got to highlight critical information, make the analysis clear to the reader, and make it easy for the reader to follow your arguments. If you don’t your memo will fail to convince your audience about your findings.
The fourth step to writing a killer memo is simple: it’s great writing. Poor writing will weaken even the strongest arguments. To produce a killer memo your writing needs to be clear, concise, and convincing.
The final step is to take the time to do a careful review of your memo, get feedback from colleagues, mentors, and other experts, and to make the necessary final revisions to polish your memo into a killer memo. This step is by far the least appreciated, but for those of you who have not yet developed a serious review and revision habit, you will be shocked at how much this step helps improve your work. Remember, this memo has your name on it – it’s your calling card – you want that to be as polished and professional as possible.
So those are the five steps. It’s not super complicated, there’s no rocket science here, and no short cuts – you need to put in the work at each step of the process. But each one is based on time-tested principles that I’ve discovered over the years and I can say that when people follow them carefully they write dramatically better memos.
What Will Happen if I Write Killer Memos?
Let me end with a few stories about the impact killer memos can have.
At the highest level of government, we can see the impact of memos everywhere. I’m a history buff so I often talk to my students about the memo Zbigniew Brzezinski, Jimmy Carter’s National Security Adviser, wrote outlining the strategy Carter used to help negotiate a peace treaty between Israel and Egypt, or the memo the CDC Director wrote President Ford about whether the public should get vaccinated for swine flu.
But I’d also like to share a couple of personal stories where killer memos made a big difference to regular folks.
I’ll start with one of my own stories. Back in the 1990s I worked for a small nonprofit organization in Michigan tasked with developing new online education programs. At one point we hatched this plan to help upgrade the skills of the automotive supply chain – all the people working at the hundreds of companies supported the big automakers like Ford, GM, and Chrysler. My job was to figure out how to communicate the idea in a memo for the governor in order to get her to give us some money.
My boss warned me that the governor was super busy and that every word had to count. I was nervous and I will admit that I spent longer writing that short memo than any else I’ve ever written. We spent time figuring out what the governor’s priorities were, how to explain the current situation and the benefits of doing things differently. We gave the project a catchy name and explained in just two pages what the need was, what we would do, and the benefits it would generate. In the end the governor loved it and gave us $2 million! Now, there was a lot going on; the memo was just part of the story, but it was incredibly helpful for us to tell our story and sell the idea to the governor’s office.
And then there is a former undergraduate student of mine who I’ll never forget. She took my course on homeland security policy and that semester my students had to write a series of five policy memos, all centered around a particular terrorist group each student was researching. Her writing, like most of my students, started out okay, but she really got into the course, loved the material, worked hard to improve her writing, and her last couple of memos were just outstanding.
Her last memo was so good, in fact, that she used it as her writing sample when she applied for a job with the Defense Intelligence Agency. A few months later she called and told me she got the job. I’m not saying that’s the only reason she got the job, but given that writing concise, clear, and convincing analyses is exactly what the intelligence community does, I am willing to go out on a limb and suggest that her memo helped seal the deal.
Obviously, I can’t promise any specific benefits will result from learning how to write a killer memo and there are no guarantees in life, but I have seen dozens of situations where a killer memo or report made a critical difference. Simply put, writing killer memos is a really important skill and good things can happen to people who write them.
And if you’re ready to take your memo writing to the next level, please check out my new live Master Class: How to Write a Killer Policy Memo.