The Five-Step Process for Writing Killer Memos

Killer memos are compelling, concise, credible, clear and compelling, but very few people have ever learned how to write them.

I developed my five-step process over years of helping thousands of people learn to write killer memos without all the stress and strain.


Video Transcript

Hi, I’m Trevor Thrall, one of the founders of E38 Academy and a professor at George Mason University. In my previous video I talked about the tremendous opportunity that’s waiting out there for people who master the art of writing killer memos. I also talked about the challenge most people face trying to take advantage of that opportunity, which is that they don’t really know exactly what makes a memo great and they don’t have a recipe for writing them.

Remember that a memo – whether it’s a policy memo, an intelligence report, a risk analysis, or what have you, is 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’s gotta be: Compelling, Concise, Credible, Clear and Convincing

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.

I hope you find this video a helpful guide for thinking about your own writing. Have you seen some great memos? Have you seen terrible ones? Are you writing killer memos? If not, what could be doing better? Please leave me a comment below with your thoughts.

Thanks, see you soon.