Best Practices amaurY murgaDo
The arT oF memo wriTing Crafting a focused message targeting the right audience is key to getting your point across.
riting memos is not a particularly fun topic. It’s not as portant. The military has a simple philosophy on handing interesting as, say, firearms or combatives, but it’s an information; they use “the need to know” as a paradigm. In important part of the job nonetheless. Have you ever read the age of e-mails, the Internet, and intranets, we “cc” the a poorly written memo? I have, and it’s embarrassing. We crap out of everybody in an effort to CYA. But it’s usually want to be considered professionals and yet we often write unnecessary and an annoyance. As a unit commander, I aldrivel. Memos are fi lled with misspelled words and gram- ready had enough paperwork to deal with so I always appreciated a carefully crafted memo that mar errors, but what’s even worse is was actually relevant to me in some when the writing creates more quesway. Usually memos that I received tions than it answers. It’s especially were split equally between a project embarrassing when such a memo fi le and the trash. They’re either usecomes from someone who gets paid ful or they’re not. a great deal more money because of Don’t be the person who writes a his or her rank and position. memo for everything. There is still There is an ebb and flow to writing such a thing as a phone call, as well memos. The goal of any memo is eias bumping into someone in a hallther to bring attention to a problem way, or just plain going to speak to by providing information, or to solve someone in his or her office. a problem by defining what action should be taken. Let’s look at how to If it's a procedure change, list the changes do this by identifying the target auwhaT TheY neeD To Know systematically. dience, defining what they need to Once you identify the who and why know, and placing the information in a successful format. of a memo, you need to focus on the what. Memos by nature contain very specific and focused information, so don’t ramble. If you are bringing attention to something then it’s iDenTiFYing Your auDienCe important to include a brief background, specific points that Your target group should be limited. Communicating with any group larger than a handful should instead be handled you are making about the issue, and finally what it is you via a training bulletin, policy and procedure, or a letter of in- want back from the reader. In other words, include anything struction. Sensitive issues are often best handled in person. the reader would need to make an informed decision. For example, let’s say you’re a supervisor and you are Your target audience will usually consist of decisionmakers. That means answering two questions up front: who having a disciplinary problem with one of your subordiyou are writing to and why they need to know. Consider nates. You formulate a memo that asks to invoke a formal their position, responsibilities, and what projects they are disciplinary process. In this example, you must include the already connected to. Since all law enforcement has a bu- background that led to this point, what you have already reaucratic and politically charged structure, each recipient done in order to try to correct the problem, disciplinary hisyou are writing to is not just a position or title. It’s a human tory, what policy violations are involved, and what it is you being, and you need to know something about that person need back from the reader to continue. If there is enough information to suggest a policy violation, then the last item in order to be effective. For example, how does he perceive bad news? Is he open- covered should be seeking permission to go forward with an minded? And what has been your experience with him? internal affairs investigation. On the other hand, if you are not asking something but Sometimes having someone else write the memo, even if it is your idea, gives it a better chance of success. Take some time are giving instructions to take some type of action, you still mention the background, but you then add where you are to think about how the information will be received. Why your target audience needs to know is equally im- with the issue, and state how you want it handled. With an 16
POLICE SEPTEMBER 2011
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Best Practices action memo, you need to include all the information necessary for the reader to become successful in completing the task. This means including the parameters, limitations, and the date when it needs to be completed. You can expect clarifying questions; minimize them by being as thorough as possible. Your failure to describe what you want done will result in the recipient’s failure to get it done. As a sergeant I worked for a lieutenant who never told me anything except “Get it done.” When I asked questions, his response would make you think I had personally insulted him. Then, when I handled it the way I thought it needed to be handled, he would tear my work product apart. Help your people become successful and don’t waste their time. Otherwise they will certainly waste yours.
known or what you want done. You need to create a balance of information; write too much, you lose the reader. If you write too little, he or she won’t understand. The writing cliché "less is more" aptly applies. Writing a concise memo is harder than writing a long one. This is why you see so much drivel in interoffice communication. So often the writer doesn’t take the time to craft her documents. To make life easier, she quickly writes 10 words instead of thinking of the appropriate two. A memo might require varying degrees of involvement. The body might need a tasking section or a discussion section. You may need to list assumptions or detail the pros and cons of an option. In addi-
Following the Format A memo follows the usual layout of head-
ing, opening, body, and close. The heading or subject line will help determine whether your memo will be taken seriously, let alone even read. Hit them hard there and you will get their attention. Subject lines like, “HAZMAT Concern,” “Problems with Booking,” and “Overuse of TASER” will stand out because they grab your attention immediately. Don’t ever be generic or funny in this area or you will lose any sense of urgency. The introduction is your opportunity to set the hook. It’s here where you supply the reader with the background, problem, or mission statement. If you lose the reader here, your memo will be given a cursory treatment. Therefore, make your first sentence the strongest. The body is where you find the supporting evidence for your communication. Here’s where you list the points you want
Tips for Memo Writing 1 Pop with an attention-getting subject line. 2 Make the first sentence strong, as that’s your hook. 3 You are either asking for information or telling someone what to do. 4 It takes time to write concisely. 5 Close as strongly as you open; it’s your last chance to impress your points upon the reader.
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Crafting a good memo takes time.
tion, in order to bolster your point of view, you might have to provide additional attachments. You want to draw a picture for your reader. Anything that you can do to help make that picture come in clear and in focus will make your memo stronger and more effective. The closing requires your attention because it’s your last chance to make an impression on the reader. You might have to craft a short summary or hit upon your main point one more time. A closing shouldn’t consist of just “thanks for your attention to this matter.” Remember, you can lose your reader at any point in your writing. You need to start strong and finish strong.
problem and provide a series of solutions. Unless you are totally clueless, a decisionmaker wants to see you have put thought into the issue and are not just passing the buck. Watch your tone; don’t let an emotionally charged topic get the better of you. Use facts, make a logical argument, and always try to include options. No one likes to be hemmed in. And don’t try to surround your idea with less desirable ones as a ploy. It’s an old con that seldom survives a question and answer period. Make sure to outline your points systematically. If you know how to write a decent police report then you should already know how to do this. Police reports are written chronologically, categorically, or in some type of combination of both. No one wants to read something that takes forever to get to the point or bounces all over the place going nowhere. Take your reader from Point A to Point B as painlessly as possible. If you are giving instructions, make sure they are clear and easy to follow. If there is any wiggle room, outline where and when the reader can apply his own judgment. If you don’t and he ends up not doing what you wanted, it’s your fault, not his.
Final Thoughts Above all, approach memo-writing from a standpoint of practicality. Try to keep your memo at one page but no more than two. Anything longer is not a memo and should be handled differently. Your memos are public record and subject to freedom of information-type legislation. Write them well unless you want the world to think you’re an idiot. Place only the information necessary to get your point across. And always follow-up after you write it. It will help you combat the bureaucrat who deflects criticism by saying he didn’t get it or doesn’t remember. Of course, it’s your name on the memo and not mine, so feel free to write it however you wish; it’s just paper. But then again, it’s you they’ll be calling onto the carpet, not me.
Memo Writing Tips Employing several simple techniques
can take your memo from laughable to laudable. Remember to define the issue at hand by including the background, where you are now, and where you’d like to be. It’s a good philosophy to outline the
Amaury Murgado is a special operations lieutenant with the Osceola County (Fla.) Sheriff’s Office. He is a retired master sergeant from the Army Reserve, has 24 years of law enforcement experience, and has been a lifelong student of martial arts.
Police officers need to learn how to write memos well.