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How to Format a Business Memo

Memo writing seems like it’s out, but it’s a great skill to have when you need to get out professional and detailed information to the masses. Learning the correct format and when to use a memo versus an email is the best way to start utilizing memos in your business.

With the rise of email communications in offices, memos have seemingly slipped onto the back burner. However, they do still have an important place in the business world. Where emails can be, and often are, used for confidential conversations or information for small groups within an office, memos are for mass communication.

A memo is not as formal as some other types of business writing but is more formal than a quick email. They are meant to share information on

policy changes, company announcements, or updated procedures in a quick and succinct way that is easy for those on all levels of the organization to understand.

Today memos are often sent through email, although some are still posted or sent through inter-office mail. Memos carry a distinct purpose, even in a technologically advanced world, so understanding when to use one and how to format it is an important aspect of working in corporate America.

When to Use a Memo vs. Email

Email always seems like the fastest way to get information out to the masses, but that isn’t always the case. Emails inboxes at businesses are overrun with emails that are often ignored or forgotten about. We use email for things that really should be in person conversations or, even better, memorandums.

There are a few keys things to take into consideration when choosing whether to send an email or write a memo. They are as follows:

  • Is this an actionable item?
  • Will this be quick to read and then delete?
  • How much detail should go into this information?
  • Does formatting matter?
  • Will this need to be printed later?
  • Is this a formal request?
  • How complex is the topic?
  • How long will it be?

The answers to these questions will lead you to either an email or a memo. Let’s break down some of these questions to help you understand what is appropriate and when.

Is This an Actionable Item and Will it be Quick to Read and Delete?

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If the answer to that question is yes, then most likely you can put your thoughts in an email. If you are sending out information to one or two individuals who can read it in email format, act on it, and then either reply or delete, that is completely appropriate.

If, however, you are sending out information to a larger group within the company, or to a small group that will have to make large changes that may take time to complete, you should send a memo instead.

Please note, some managers will use memos to convey praise or give criticism, but this is not something we suggest. Memos are public, so although they can be a nice way to recognize great work, they can also come off as impersonal and cold. You don’t want to embarrass employees with public critique either.

How Much Detail and How Long?

For information that needs a lot of detail, or that takes time and therefore page length to explain, a memo is a better idea. Memos can be printed and hung up or kept in binders for quick access another day. Memos are also more formal, so precise information and requests really should be written in this format.

Emails can be fine for detailed information if you know the person receiving the email can comprehend and then delete the email, or will be able to save it and live without access to it should they not be near their workstation or lose internet access. Memos take away those variables.

Format and Printing

Overall the rule of thumb on a memo is that formatting matters. Memos get printed out, even if they are originally sent via email, so it’s important to have the formatting correct to achieve what you are looking to achieve and keep up the formality of the style.

Emails are meant to stay online. They often look a bit goofy or unorganized when you print them off, so if you think someone will have to print, opt out of an email. If formatting and printability are not concerns, email may be the way to go.

Formality

The final thing to consider when deciding between an email and a memo is the formality. If you are formally changing a policy or making a request, it is important to do so in memo format. Doing so will help to ensure that your request is taken seriously and that individuals actually read it and take appropriate action.

Structure of a Memo

laptop and notes

image source: unsplash.com via Bram Naus

There are a few different types of people you should keep in mind when writing memos to use the best format and get the most readership.

The first group is those individuals who will only read the executive summary. These are busy people, usually on the upper echelons of an organization who can’t take time to read a long piece of information in detail. For these people, you will need to make sure your summary is succinct and clear.

The second group is those who skim the memo for key points or details that directly interest or affect them. For these individuals, you will want to ensure that you give a good sense of what’s changing for them or what’s in it for them if the memo contains a request.

The third and final group is those who read and digest the whole document to understand the details, the major claims and/or the recommendations there within. For these individuals you have to make sure you have your ducks in a row, so to speak, and your reasoning is clear for any changes or requests.

You might be asking yourself, how can you possibly accommodate all three of these personality types in one memo, but we promise it’s easier than it seems. In the next section we will go over exactly how to write a business memo, and you will see that all of these people are accommodated when a memo is written correctly.

How to Write a Business Memo

First, we should talk about formatting. A memo begins with a title on the very top center of the page that reads “Memorandum,” followed by the addressee(s), the sender, the date, and the subject all left aligned on the page. If the memo is to be printed, use nice paper, not thin printer paper, to bring an air of importance.

Once your formatting is set, you will begin adding the meat to your memo. To do this, start with the main point. Yes, this seems somewhat obvious, but

this is not the time to begin with a story or ease readers in. You want to appeal to those who need to know what this is about immediately, so give the problem or question up front.

Setting up your memo in this way gives readers who want or need more information a chance to read on, while those who are unaffected or uninterested can then begin to skim or stop reading altogether.

Make sure you are staying professional and succinct in your writing style throughout the process. You need straightforward and easy to read facts that can help readers to feel like you are an authority on this topic, and that you aren’t wasting their time with unnecessary words.

When your memo is complete, you will need to think of a solid subject line that gives readers the most information in the fewest possible words. Your subject should deliver the purpose of the memo immediately and help to orient the reader to the subject at hand. It should also help with filing for the reader after the fact.

Finally, you will want to summarize the main points from your memo into an executive summary. For long memos, anything longer than one page, your first paragraph will function as the executive summary. Short memos may not need this feature. The parts of an executive summary are as follows:

  • Presentation of main​​​​ idea.
  • Summarization of main facts, arguments and evidence.​
  • Provide quick overview of purpose and content.​
  • Forecast other information available throughout memo.

If you are writing an extra long memo, you should utilize headings and sub-headings to help with structure and to help guide readers to areas that are specific to them or to their interests. Using short, cohesive paragraphs can also help with structuring a memo for readability.

Summing It Up

co workers

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Although memos may seem like they are old news, there are many situations in your day-to-day business that utilizing one is the best idea. For anyone who needs to communicate with a large number of individuals, to make a formal request, to change a company policy, or to ensure formatting on point, memos are necessary.

Remember to think about all of the points we have discussed when deciding whether to write a memo or an email. Remember also that formatting in memos is very important, so you should be familiar with the format before you begin writing.

The most important thing to remember when writing a memo is that you need to remain professional, and you need to know your audience. No matter the size of your company, you will need to remember that there are different types of readers and make sure to think of all of their needs during the writing process.

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