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Harvard Management
Communication Letter
A Newsletter from Harvard
Business School Publishing

Tools, Techniques, and Ideas for the Articulate Executive

Article Reprint No. C0504C

The Best Memo You’ll Ever Write by Holly Weeks

This document is authorized for use by Ethan Beldengreen-Karas, from 8/30/2012 to 12/1/2012, in the course:
BUS 365: Communication and Professional Development - Epstein/Graves (Fall 2012), Emory University.
Any unauthorized use or reproduction of this document is strictly prohibited.

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This document is authorized for use by Ethan Beldengreen-Karas, from 8/30/2012 to 617-783-7587 course:
BUS 365: Communication and Professional Development - Epstein/Graves (Fall 2012), Emory University.
Any unauthorized use or reproduction of this document is strictly prohibited.

Writing

The Best Memo You’ll Ever Write
Every memo—or report or e-mail—is important in today’s business environment. If you keep in mind that readers are content driven, time pressed, and decision focused, you can write right—every time. by Holly Weeks

T

out there about what defines good business writing, much of it conflicting. Business readers like writing that is clear, but writers are often encouraged to make their information “sound good.”
Readers want their information served up simply and directly, but writers are pushed to make their copy “stand out.” Readers want to get to the bottom line fast, but writers are criticized if they leave out background detail that someone might look for.
Conflicting advice is hard to follow, and clarity can be the first standard to fall. Not because the writer’s thinking is fuzzy—a frequent disparagement—or because the writer is intellectually dishonest and trying to hide the truth behind smudgy language, but because the writer is trying to juggle contradictory ideas about style, presentation, and level of detail.
The truth is that there is a better way to approach business writing, and that is to start from these three realities: business readers are content driven, time pressed, and in search of solutions.
What does that mean to writers? First, they should get out of the impressive-language business. To content-driven readers, language simply carries information, ideas, and the relationships among them. Good language is rather like a
HERE IS A LOT OF ADVICE

good butler—it works smoothly in the service of the reader without calling attention to itself. Second, organization is critical. Whatever particular analysis you make or actions you advocate, how compelling readers will find your report or memo depends largely on how logically you order and present information and ideas.

The starting point
From your introduction the content-driven reader judges whether the rest of your memo is worth his time. Yet the beginning is where many writers ease in and build slowly.
This is a mistake. Your opening must answer the reader’s question “Why am I reading this?” To do so, it needs to establish the relevance and the utility of the document as a whole. Here is where the classic business writing text The Minto Pyramid Principle: Logic in Writing,
Thinking and Problem Solving, by Barbara Minto (Minto
International, 1996) is particularly helpful. An effective introduction, Minto says, briskly tells a story built around four elements:
1. The situation: A quick, factual sketch of the current business situation that serves to anchor the reader.

READER-FRIENDLY STYLE
Writing clear, content-driven sentences can be tough on people who want their writing to “flow.” Think of it: the reason lullabies flow is that you are trying to get a child to fall asleep. Flowing sentences tend to be long, dense, and rhythmic. Choppy sentences are not better—too many of them can be distracting. Readers want the middle ground—brisk, hardworking sentences that carry good content. Brevity is not a virtue in business writing, conciseness is.
Reader-oriented business writing is also tough on people who think complex phrasing makes them look smarter. When a content-driven reader gets bogged down in your phrasing, you don’t look elegant or smart.

You look pompous and self-absorbed.
Surprisingly, jargon—the specialized language of a particular field—is not inimical to good business writing, if it’s suitable to your primary audience. Using jargon, like using acronyms, is a tight and efficient way to communicate among experts. But there are three situations in which you shouldn’t use jargon: when it’s meaningless, when you don’t understand it, or when your readers aren’t familiar with it. If you have multiple audiences and you want to use professional terminology because your primary audience uses it, define your term the first time you use it. For a long report, consider adding a glossary.

Copyright © 2005 by Harvard Business School Publishingby Ethan Beldengreen-Karas, from 8/30/2012 to 12/1/2012, in the course:
Corporation. All rights reserved.
This document is authorized for use
BUS 365: Communication and Professional Development - Epstein/Graves (Fall 2012), Emory University.
Any unauthorized use or reproduction of this document is strictly prohibited.

3

Better Memos and Reports (continued)

from sentences initially and diagram your arguments and
2. The complication: A problem that unsettles the data as small, digestible chunks of information. Second, situation in the story you’re telling. It’s why you’re working from the top down, cluster and hang those writing the memo or report. chunks in a pyramid shape, with the information below
3. The question: This might be “What should we do?” developing and supporting the points above (see “Orga“How can we do it?” or “What’s wrong with what we nizing Ideas in a Pyramid”). An argument can travel horitried?” The question does not necessarily have to be zontally across the chunks on its own spelled out; it may be implied. level, but always in support of the
4. The answer: Your response to
ORGANIZING IDEAS chunk from which it hangs on the level the question and your solution
IN A PYRAMID above. Your thinking may have proto the complication. gressed from bottom up in the pyraThe order in which the elements appear mid, but your writing is going to can vary. Here are two examples: progress from top down.
Say you have just joined a midsize
Situation–Complication–Solution
processed-food company. As the new
(the question “What should we do?” vice president of business developis implicit) ment, you are charged with identifying
Mediation’s popularity has increased new markets and leading the creation over the last quarter-century as people
From The Minto Pyramid Principle: Logic in Writing, Thinking and of products for them. have sought alternative methods of disProblem Solving by Barbara Minto. © 1996 by Barbara Minto.
Sales growth in the company’s main pute resolution that do not entail litigaproduct line, frozen dinners, has been stagnant for three tion’s high cost and adversarial approach. But concern is years running. But you have identified a promising new growing that because mediators possess varying levels of target market: working parents between the ages of 35 and training, the quality of mediation is unpredictable. I suggest
55 who have sophisticated tastes and avoid preservatives that we use our organization’s stature to spearhead a moveand artificial ingredients. You want to convince your comment to professionalize the standards of practice for mediapany’s executive committee to create an upmarket line of tion so that mediators can get consistent, high-quality organic frozen dinners with a Continental flair. preparation in every state, and individuals or communities
Here is how you would arrange the chunks in one secsubmitting to mediation will have confidence in their mediation of your pyramid: tors’ qualifications.
Question–Situation–Complication–Solution
What can we do to professionalize mediation so that the momentum gained over the last half-century is not lost?
Individuals and communities turned to mediation in the first place to avoid the expense and conflict of litigation. But the increase in the number of mediators with varying levels of training makes the quality of mediation unpredictable, which causes dissatisfaction. I suggest that we use our organization’s stature to spearhead a movement to establish standards of practice for mediation so that mediators can get high-quality training wherever they live, and individuals or communities submitting to mediation can have confidence in their mediators’ qualifications.
Notice that shifting the order of the elements still satisfies the reader’s expectation for the introduction. But it changes the tone, with the second example sounding more assertive.

Create a high-end line of organic gourmet frozen dinners
Why?
Sales in our main product line are flat

To grow, we need to target a new market

Double-income parents ages 35–55 constitute a large and growing market that would respond to this product line

They are too busy to cook from scratch every night

Most frozen dinners contain additives and preservatives that they don’t want to consume themselves and that they especially don’t want their children to consume

Why?
They have sophisticated tastes and the income to indulge them

Constructing the pyramid
Now it’s time to make the case for the solution you advocate. Minto has two recommendations. First, stay away

4

Once you’ve arranged the chunks of your argument in this way, the actual writing is easy.

Harvard Management Communicationuse by Ethan Beldengreen-Karas, from 8/30/2012 to 12/1/2012, in the course:
Letter
This document is authorized for
BUS 365: Communication and Professional Development - Epstein/Graves (Fall 2012), Emory University.
Any unauthorized use or reproduction of this document is strictly prohibited.

Better Memos and Reports (continued)

Some final tips

• Put the weight at the front of each section. Readers



like the journalistic approach—even if the story will break the hearts of millions, journalists give it away in the headline. But writers want to lead the reader, hand-in-hand, through their points and arguments to their conclusion. Except in murder mysteries, readers hate that.
Use reader-oriented judgment to decide the right level of detail. Many overwriters pride themselves on their thoroughness, while underwriters congratulate themselves for being admirably brief. Both do a disservice to their readers and hence to themselves.
Overwriters risk losing readers in a flood of detail, while underwriters may come across as superficial thinkers. From the reader’s point of view, thorough means “exhaustive” and brief means “short”; the goal should be to be concise, which means “as tight as possible, but complete.”

• Revise by principle; there is no template. Business

writers beg for template sentences, but a template will distort a reader-oriented, content-driven memo or report every time. The principles of good organization—fast, focused openings, the weight at the front of each section, a well-judged level of detail, and Minto’s pyramid structure of logic—will serve you better than twisting your content to fit a generic template. Revising by principle will also help you more than the old standby advice: “Set it aside for 48 hours and come back to it.” That’s an effective way to give you a fresh eye for your writing, but when was the last time you had 48 hours to spare? ❉
Holly Weeks is a Cambridge, Mass.–based communications consultant. She can be reached at hmcl@hbsp.harvard.edu.

This document is authorized for use by Ethan Beldengreen-Karas, from 8/30/2012 to 12/1/2012, in the course:
BUS 365: Communication and Professional Development - Epstein/Graves (Fall 2012), Emory University.
Any unauthorized use or reproduction of this document is strictly prohibited.

Spring 2005

5…...

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