The art of writing a good memo

By Ulrik Roehl

Thursday February 10, 2022

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Every day, public servants across the world write millions of formal memos, notes and briefings. (Photobank/Adobe)

Every day, public servants across the world write millions of formal memos, notes and briefings. What I will focus on here is the specific category of memos recommending a decision or course of action to a superior public servant or elected representative. Such writing is really the bread and butter activity of executive public administration, covering a wide width of subjects, from specific cases via tactical issues to policy initiatives.

Those diverse subjects share one trait: the suggested decisions always have pros and cons which – in democratic, enlightened societies – ideally must be delivered to the decision-maker(s) in a balanced, concise form. 

The really difficult thing, though, is how to balance being objective (shedding light on all major pros and cons, including possible alternatives) with being guiding (pointing to a specific, suggested decision or course of action). That is really what makes writing decision memos an art!

Bearing in mind the differences between administrative traditions around the world as well as between policy areas, five elements are key to balanced decision memos:

  1. Be loyal: Do not either underestimate nor overestimate the reader, who – as you are serving in a bureaucratic organisation – is most likely the superior to your superior to your superior to your… you know. Expect the reader to be smarter than you think, but remember you and your colleagues are most likely experts vis-à-vis the reader: Avoid jargon, technical terminology or other inside knowledge making it hard for the reader.
  2. Be objective: You (or your immediate boss or a strong stakeholder or an influential media outlet) might have a natural preference for a certain decision. But your task is to be objective, holistic and rigorous. List major advantages and disadvantages, and differentiate clearly between facts, and your assessments and estimates. Where assessments and estimates are associated with clear limits in scope, state it.
  3. Be clear: Being objective and mentioning both pros and cons does not mean you cannot be clear. State in plain language what the recommended decision or course of action is. And despite being an art, remember you are not writing a crime story: place the recommendation straight after a short introduction, and then state the necessary next steps.
  4. Be short: Expect your reader to have limited time to read the memo. You might think it is unfair, but consider if you want the memo to be read, or you prefer to add those extra pages that details everything? There is no such thing as a perfect length (as far as I know, Germanic and East Asian traditions for example allow for greater length than, say, Anglo-Saxon or Scandinavian). But place necessary, detailed knowledge in an appendix and give yourself (or a colleague) the task of reducing the length of the memo with at least a third after you initially think it is finished.
  5. Be illustrative: There might be some specific points that are necessary to understand in order to fully comprehend the recommendation: consider using a simple table or figure to underscore important elements. In a similar manner, but only if suitable for the subject; do not be afraid to use a popular saying that goes to the core of the subject. Finally, use section headlines and spend time on the wording using an active voice rather than a passive one.

Observing those elements won’t get you all the way, but it will provide a very good basis for your journey towards mastering the art of writing a good memo!

This article is republished from apolitical.


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