Behn’s Craft of Memo Writing
According to the Harvard Kennedy School’s Bob Behn, writing memoranda in public management should be considered a craft, with detailed attention to design and technique.
Behn explains why, and provides advice on technique, in his classic The Craft of Memo Writing (click image on right), a 12-page memo crafted great care. Indeed, Behn states in endnote 30:
I wrote the first version of “The Craft of Memo Writing” years ago. Since then, I have rewritten, and rewritten, and rewritten it. Yet, when I sat down in January 2011 to rewrite and redesign yet another version, it took me two-and-a-half days. For this edition, I devoted only a long evening.
This remaining paragraphs on this Atlas page are direct quotes from Behn’s memo.
Importance of memos
Unfortunately, you may never acquire the importance and influence that you seek – and make the career advances that you desire – without first developing your ability to write clearly, coherently, and persuasively. Thus, you need to devote significant time, thought, practice, and work to ensure that your writing is influential.
You need to become a master of that much maligned – yet genuinely powerful and universally indispensable – policy tool: the memo.
Challenge of having your memo read
In the policy world, everyone reads memos. Thus, a lot of people must be writing memos. Yet, not every memo that is written is also read. After all, a memo may be tossed to a harried official as he or she dashes out of the office, stuffed into a briefcase, and only retrieved with a jumble of other coffee-stained papers in Seat 29B. Most policy makers find that their memo-reading time is scarce. They refuse to waste this precious asset on junk.
In writing a memo, you are competing for the valuable time of some very influential people. At the Kennedy School, the faculty must read every student’s memo. After you leave the Kennedy School, however, no one is required to read a single one of them.
Your first sentence
In anything you write, your first sentence is your most important. If your first sentence is boring, if your first sentence is incoherent or irrelevant, if your first sentence contains nothing new, no one will read your second sentence.
Thus, you should deliberately craft your first sentence to convince an audience drowning in paper and flooded with e-mails – someone who is glancing at your memo while waiting for someone else to answer the phone – that you have some ideas to which they need to pay attention.
- Don’t waste your first sentence on boilerplate.
- Don’t waste your first sentence telling your readers things they already know.
- Do use your first sentence to convince your very busy audience that the rest of your memo (or, at least, your next sentence) is a must read. Use your first sentence to persuade them that your few pages are precisely what they need to know to solve one of their most pressing problems.
Design your memo
Don’t just write your memo. Design it. Employ headings and subheadings, bullets and italics – and white space too – to impart the structure of your argument and to highlight your key points. Design your memo so that a reader can scan it quickly and grasp your message.
At the same time, don’t distract the reader by mixing in too many fancy fonts, by underlining too many words, by creating too many subsections with too many subheadings, by puncturing the page with too many bullets. If your formatting is too confusing, you will only distract or discourage potential readers.
… Finally, avoid the impenetrable, intimidating page. Don’t make any single page too overwhelming. Don’t make any paragraph too dense. Don’t make any sentence too long. Design your memo to entice your audience to read it.
The design of your memo is not, however, something that you put in at the end to make it look pretty. You need to consider your design from the very beginning. Then as your thinking evolves, you need to simultaneously modify both your ideas and your design, testing whether your latest design presents your thinking best, or discovering that it exposes some weaknesses in your thinking, thus requiring that you modify your thinking – your words, your sentences, and your design.
Write for your personal audience
Usually, when you write a memo, you are writing it for your team, your colleagues, your partners (who may even be your friends). … Thus, you will know your audience personally. You will know how your partners think. You will know how each of them likes to receive information. You will understand what they know and don’t know. Use this inside information to your advantage – to ensure that the content and design of your memo responds directly to your audience’s presentation preferences, current knowledge, and strategic needs. … Design your memo to answer your team’s pressing questions — to help solve a currently important problem.
But remember a secondary audience
At the same time, remember that you may have a secondary audience. If your team likes your memo, someone may wish to circulate it more widely. Thus, design your memo so that it could be distributed to educate a wider audience with little or no revisions (and so that it can be leaked with little or no embarrassment).
Write for real people, not bureaucrats
Make it easy for your readers to obtain the information and analysis that they seek and the insight that you possess.
- Be direct. If you are too subtle – too clever – your audience may misinterpret your ideas.
- Abstain from boredom. If your writing is dull, people will assume you are too.
- Avoid fancy words. If you wouldn’t use a word or a phrase in an e-mail to your college roommate, don’t use it in a memo.
- Make reading effortless. If your reader must wade through long, convoluted sentences, if your reader must struggle to understand the structure of your memo, if your reader can’t figure out your message, your memo is trash.
There is no such thing as good writing, only good rewriting
Getting the words right (quoting Hemingway). This requires rewriting. And rewriting. And then more rewriting.
You need to get your words right, because your audience will only read so much. Maybe this limit is five pages. Maybe it is only one page. Regardless of the limit, you will be pressed to live within its constraints – to include all of your absolutely essential ideas without violating your audience’s patience. This requires rewriting.
…”How can I possibly omit any of my absolutely essential ideas and captivatingly clever words – words without which my audience will never understand the sophistication of my thinking?”
To the rescue rides William Strunk: “Omit needless words. Omit needless words. Omit needless words,” he told generations of literary gluttons. Ignore this advice at your peril. Follow it, and it will help you rewrite to your audience’s satisfaction. Still, this advice is difficult to implement. It requires you to ruthlessly purge your most cherished words. Fortunately, for this task, George Orwell provides a useful rule: “If it is possible to cut out a word, always cut it out.”
Bob Behn, 2017, The Craft of Memo Writing, http://www.atlas101.ca/pm/wp-content/uploads/2017/01/Behn-Craft-of-Memo-Writing-2017.pdf, provided by the author with permission to upload to the Atlas, 11 January 2017.
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Page created by: Ian Clark, last modified on 12 January 2017.
Image: Image of first page of Behn memo from http://www.atlas101.ca/pm/wp-content/uploads/2017/01/Behn-Craft-of-Memo-Writing-2017.pdf, accessed 12 January 2017.