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How to Write the Perfect Memo

Please watch the video below for instruction on how to write a typical business memo. Suggestion: Click on the cog icon at bottom right and choose 720p to watch the video in HD.

Memo Checklist

checkmark Does identifying information conform to organization standards and preferences?
checkmark Is the memo's purpose clearly stated at the start, or is there a valid reason for not stating the memo's purpose in the opening paragraph?
checkmark Are headings (major and minor) as well as short paragraphs (5-8 sentences) used throughout to improve readability and comprehension?
checkmark If needed is adequate background information provided?
checkmark Is the discussion logical? Unlike dashing off an email, a memorandum should usually be outlined first.
checkmark Are action items highlighted at the end of the memo?
checkmark If there are subsequent pages beyond the first, are these pages on plain paper, not stationery, with a running head and page number?


Video Transcript
 One of the most common business documents today is the memo or memorandum.. It's a format that most of use have experience with, reading them if not already writing them. And that’s one of the pitfalls of the memo format—it is so familiar and common that we tend to take it for granted that we can do an acceptable memo already.

But like another form of common business communication, email, that assumption can sometimes get us into trouble. Perhaps it best to start with the basics and find out exactly what we do and don’t know about the various types of memos. What don’t we start with a definition:

Three Key Memo Traits
First, it is an internal document. This is helpful because you are more likely to know both the primary audience (those to whom it is addressed) and the secondary audience (those who may read it without your knowing). That more intimate knowledge of the audience gives you an advantage in comparison to letters that fly outside the office and immediately become public documents.

Second, a memo is brief. Usually one page, two pages at most. Certainly there are special types that can be
longer, but it is best to think of the memo as a one-pager, longer than an email, but usually not a complex
multipage document.

Third, is the memo’s utility in a company or work unit—from routine reports and notifications to the proposal memo and even the memo of understanding—a type of legal document.

How Relevant Are Memos Today?
But, you ask, aren’t written memos sort of relics of the past, like transistor radios or Commodore computers?
Yes and no. Sure, today’s forms of electronic communication dominate the workplace—from emails to IMs, blog posts to Skype chats.
But, there are still specific reasons and occasions when you will need to produce a written memo. Some of
these reasons and occasions are:

When you want to stand out in the flood of digital communication. Who isn’t overwhelmed by email every
day in the workplace? But how many attractive printed documents are gently laid upon our desks?

Two, that printed document forces the recipient to take hands off the keyboard, hold your actual work in their actual hands, sit back and read it. Now be honest—do you read all emails, or do you scan most of them? Sometimes not even open them, depending on the subject line?

Three, with today’s advanced word processing software, you can control precisely how your document looks,
and sometimes a certain look is what you need to make your point or to win your audience. Having this ability also allows you to control the level of formality that you desire, whereas most email by definition is usually assumed to be informal before it is opened.

The Audience Rules
They say there is only one rule for writing: THERE ARE NO RULES. That's because THE AUDIENCE RULES. In other
words, what best communicates your purpose to a given audience is exactly how you should write and exactly what you should include in the writing.

When it comes to memo writing—which is, remember, an internal document—there are three potential

  • a superior
  • an equal
  • a subordinate.

So no matter what else, always consider the best way to address these three primary audiences as you are applying these memo standards—and remember never to talk down to a subordinate.

The Company Rules
Not only does the audience rule, so does the company when it comes to writing memos. What your company or
workgroup has set standard for memo style—or any type of writing really—is exactly what you should follow, regardless of what any video or textbook tells you. 

Sometimes these rules are called House Style and some organizations even provide style guides you must follow. If there aren’t any published guidelines, then you should simply look at recent memos from respected. successful employees and find out answers to questions like:

  • Should you use company letterhead stationery for your first page (letterhead is usually not continued after the first page of a memo)?
  • For recipients, should you list full names (first and last), or last name and initials only?
  • Should you include job titles after the recipient’s name (job titles add extra information that can make the memo more useful for future readers)
  • What typeface (font) and point size are preferred?
  • Should you handwrite your initials by your name on the From line?

Commentary on Sample Memo
Let’s take a look at a standard company memo, then identify its parts and best practices, keeping in mind that a particular company’s house style should always take precedence.

Here we see a pretty typical memo that begins its first page on company letterhead.

carnival memo

Sample memo from Bovee & Thill, Business Communication Today (11th ed.).  Pearson, 2012.

Heading Alignment: One common mistake is not using aligned columns for the headings TO, FROM and SUBJECT, which is
standard, as is boldfacing the headings. Sometimes a company may prefer RE: or Regarding. DATE: If there is no company style such as centering it under the word Memorandum, also place it in the column of headings.

Recipent alignment: After each heading is a colon, then the item it points to. These items should also be column aligned

Subject line: This is one of the most important parts of your memo. It should:

          Be specific: The subject line hould be as specific as possible. Consider it a summary of the memo in non-sentence form. For example:

 “Expense Reimbursement”
“Expense Reimbursement for January 401K Seminar”

“Procedure for Expense Reimbursement--January 401K Seminar”

         Use title capitalization: The subject line is capitalized as if it were a title, which means the first and last words, no matter what they are, are capitalized. All major words in-between are also capitalized except for articles (a, an, the) and prepositions (for, to, of).

Statement of purpose: Next, begin your memo with a clear statement of purpose. It’s fine to write as your first sentence, “The purpose of this memorandum is to . . . .” Remember the axiom: “First be clear, then you can be clever.” The two exceptions to statement of purpose rule are:

  • if the intended reader needs background information to set the stage before getting into the meat of the memo
  • if you know you reader is skeptical, hostile or otherwise likely to disagree. Then you have to soft sell the opeing a bit more.

Purpose verbs: For your subject heading and purpose statement, take the time to choose an accurate “purpose” word. Keep a list of the handy. The purpose of a memo can be to:


Subtitles/subheadings: Use clear subtitles or subheadings to signal the organization of the memo. All subtitles must be styled the same, including the exact same spacing before and after.

Paragraphing: Use short paragraphs of 5-8 sentences, which is preferred business style, along with lists and tables when appropriate instead of sentences. Examples—a bullet list for providing steps in a procedure, or a table of dates and production numbers.

Action steps: End with action steps. What happens next? What do you want the reader(s) to do? Or what will you do?

No closing: One of the primary differences between a letter and a memo is that the memo does not have a complementary closing or signature.