"I love being a writer," quipped novelist Peter DeVries. "What I can't stand is the paper work."
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.
As if this isn't enough, memos are amazingly expensive. Science 82 magazine reported that ineffective business writing -- with memos being the most common form -- costs corporate America an estimated $1 billion annually. Joy Van Skiver, president of The Writing Exchange in Stanhope, N.J., (companies like the Dun & Bradstreet Corp. and Chemical Bank are among her clients), figures that the tab for writing an average memo is about $25. Business-writing consultant Dianna Booher of Houston, author of Cutting Paperwork in the Corporate Culture, surveyed nearly 800 business people, who said that writing memos and other documents took up 21 to 38 percent of their time each year.
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 literally 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.' " By the way, you can end a sentence with a preposition.
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." Says Albert Joseph, president of the International Writing Institute in Cleveland (which at last count had trained more than 44,000 executive-level employes at AT&T and the telephone companies formerly part of AT&T): "People who use scholarly language make a statement between memo lines: 'My work is so complicated that no ordinary mortal could understand it.' " The problem, he says, is that they're often right, even when the ordinary mortal is the boss. What happens? The memo gets put on an I'll-get-to-this-later pile, which usually gets filed in the trash.
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 employes of company objectives." Loosely translated: "Whether or not incentives continue to be issued depends on employes giving company objectives top priority." But even that's not so hot. A skilled memo writer would simply say: "If you want to keep getting incentives, meet company goals."
"Using root words makes a stronger statement," says Van Skiver. "Not only do they keep the message clear, but with short, simple sentences, grammatical errors tend to disappear."
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, had an explosion at a well site; two employes were killed, and their families sued the firm. A specialist on the scene said the company was not 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 ." "It 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."
Most people who enroll in business-writing courses are middle managers, and a major complaint is that they must write a lot of memos, making speed essential. Here's how to get your thoughts clearly -- and fast:
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 psychic, he is often not sure what it is. Confusion results when you assume that the recipient knows the same details you do concerning the memo. 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. If it's necessary to explain why you want something done, don't overdo it. One expert cautions that a reader can probably 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.
No memo is written in a vacuum. Sometimes, special circumstances require special techniques to get results:
Skepticism. If, for instance, you want a superior to spend money, skepticism is a predictable response. While the beginning and the end of a memo are the best-remembered parts, in this case the middle -- your reasons -- can make or break you. Make sure they hit the mark.
Minority views. You're in a meeting. Five executives want to do X. You want to do Y. To try to change the others' minds, it's best to keep the memo impersonal, citing expert opinions, facts and figures to make your case. In this situation, the damning words "I think" turn the matter into a personality conflict rather than an objective, professional disagreement.
Low priority. The action your memo asks the recipient to take isn't urgent, but you still want it done. In this case, you're more apt to get timely results by putting a specific deadline up front, no matter how short the memo is.
No power. You may be the boss, but you're asking your staff to take part in the company's annual blood donation program. You can't order an employe to participate. In your memo, rather than first requesting the action, pave the way for it by giving the reasons why -- then ask for help. Since the request is voluntary, make it easy for the reader to respond by including a signature line at the end of the memo or a stamped, addressed envelope.
Apologies. People either over-apologize for something minor and seem insincere or don't apologize enough for something major, with the same result. If you caused someone an inconvenience a person wants to know you fully understand how put out she was. Be specific.
Saying no. Here you need to know the memo recipient. If she's confident and not easily discouraged, tell her no up front and then explain your reasons. If she doesn't take rejection well, start by stating your reasons and build up to saying no.
Pats on the back. Memos of congratulations and commendation often err in two ways. One is that they aren't specific enough. "People like to know that you truly appreciate what they did to deserve a commendation." Let the person know that you know what her contribution was. The second mistake is to combine congratulations and business in one memo. For example: "Alison, you did a great job. Don't forget you still have a deadline this Friday." The pat on the back gets lost, leaving the reader to think it's only an excuse for reminding her of the deadline coming up.
Unnecessary memos. There are two good times not to reach for a pencil. One is to cover yourself by sending a memo to a superior restating what you've been asked to do. The other is simply to get attention. In both cases, the memo has no real purpose, but it does convey a not-so-subtle message: You are insecure.