I spent many late nights as an investment banker and strategy consultant early in my career. My #1 learning from that experience (besides financial modeling) was how to communicate in an effective way, particularly with senior executives. As training now for my team at ff Venture Capital, I’ve written a three-part series on communications. And you won’t have to stay up to 3am to read them.
– Part 1: How to Write a Memo That People Will Actually Read (this post)
– Part 2: How to Present so People Will Hear
– Part 3: How To Add Powerful (and Legal) Images To Your Presentations
I recently read Atul Gawande’s Checklist Manifesto, which I really enjoyed. The theme of the book is:
– Checklists improve performance, but…
– Most people resist using checklists.
I agree with both of these points. For many of you, producing intellectual property is most of your job. If you use these checklists, your work will be substantively better.
The checklist below may remind you of a school paper. The reality is that writing a business memo and writing a paper for school are very similar exercises, so please don’t let the academic tone mislead you.
When I first started in investment banking, it took me a while to understand why my managers were so obsessive about editing, formatting, and proofreading. After a while, I finally understood: the reason is that your readers use your editing as a proxy for the diligence that goes into your underlying work. If they see a misformatted number, they assume there are significant errors in the underlying analysis. They assume you’re competent unless they’re given a single reason to assume otherwise…and then they assume you’re not so competent.
Checklist for Writing a Business Memo
Create a Thesis
- Before writing, identify your thesis, or argument. William Cronon has created an excellent guide to forming a thesis.
- Choose a “Mode of Arrangement” to present your argument. The most relevant include the analysis and compare-contrast formats.
- Create an outline, preferably using the outline feature in Microsoft Word or the word processor of your choice. The bullets in the outline should be mutually exclusive and collectively exhaustive (“MECE”), a concept I learned in consulting which is surprisingly broadly applicable.
- The introduction should announce the topic and why it matters; provide/link to necessary background material; and define key terms. You should also acknowledge the limitations of your analysis (budget, time, and your biases, for example).
- The conclusion should summarize the main points, and indicate the next steps.
- Collect research. Demonstrate your accuracy by referencing experts and using footnotes.
- Include illustrations/graphics if appropriate. See my post in 2 weeks on how to get free images.
- Pick a formatting style and stick to it. E.g., if all titles are bold and headlines are in caps, make sure this is consistent throughout the paper.
- Use clear and concise sentences; avoid jargon and the overuse of big words.
- Less formal documents, such as memos, need not use formal language. However, they have a specific format. They are typically short and are used to clearly and quickly address specific actions or management tasks.
- For a detailed memo style format, click here.
- If this is a critical memo, solicit feedback from a friend or colleague. Here is what to ask:
- What is my argument/thesis/main point?
- Do you think I successfully support this with evidence?
- Is the evidence convincing?
- What didn’t you understand?
- Tighten argumentation and coherence
Excellent background reading on this topic is a thoughtful training guide I posted from Evalueserve (which acquired my last startup) on Best Practices in Writing Emails in a Multinational Corporation.