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Ask Mint | Getting the office memo right

Ask Mint | Getting the office memo right
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First Published: Sun, Nov 23 2008. 11 50 PM IST

Updated: Sun, Nov 23 2008. 11 50 PM IST
There was a time when “memo” was a dreaded word in government departments. Together with “confidential reports”, it provided an armoury for senior officers to show juniors their place. Issuing a memo was the first step in disciplinary proceedings against them. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) has an early example of its use in this sense dated 1918.
In the context of business communication, a memo is something much less intimidating. The OED defines a memo as a “message in the form of a simple note, without the formulas and signature characteristic of a letter, and conventionally bearing the heading ‘Memorandum’ and the sender’s name”. A professionally written memorandum is one of the most effective means of communicating within an organization. It helps the business to move forward without facing the delays that may be associated with face-to-face meetings. Sometimes called inter-office memo, this kind of communication is efficient and quick in connecting two representatives of the company. Since memos are most often used for communication within an organization, they tend to be less formal than letters.
Usually, a memo is a one-page document, with emphasis on clarity of ideas and conciseness of expression.
A business memo begins with a heading that normally takes up four lines with the following labels: To (recipient’s name), From (sender’s name), Date, and Subject. The word Memorandum is typed at the top. The sender sometimes writes his initials near his name to show that the message is authentic. The job titles are written after the names in the heading.
The subject line can be very useful to the reader, who can anticipate what is coming later. Here are some sample subject lines: “Excessive absenteeism in sales dept”, “Amendment to retirement age”, “Fee waiver for Hurricane Katrina victims”.
The opening sentence of the message itself is important. The reader must know why this message is being sent to him. This can be done by a sentence that begins, “The purpose of this memo is to...” The common purposes for which a memo is sent are giving information, persuading, calling for action, seeking feedback. After reading this part, the readers should know what is in it for them. This will help them understand why they should read the memo and act on it. The memo may be addressed to one person or to a small group of people. Email users tend to send copies of their mail to an entire group (“reply all”), but a memo intended for one person should not be sent to the whole office.
After stating the purpose, the sender should give the context of the problem or action that the memo deals with. The main part of a memo is the discussion segment. Here you provide supporting ideas or facts or key findings and recommendations. Care should be taken to make the discussion direct and concise. Key findings or recommendations can be presented as a list of sentences. Headings within the body of the memo will help readers to pinpoint relevant information.
Most memos end with a reference to action to be taken by the reader. The reason for such action should be made clear in the preceding sentences. The reader may be asked to adopt some new procedure in some office task, such adopting a five-day week with extended working time.
Some memos have to remain confidential. If you send a copy to the whole office, someone may leak the contents. A multinational retailer found that a confidential memo from its top executive recommending that unhealthy people be discouraged from applying for jobs was leaked. The proposal was to assign some physical work to all employees, including cashiers, so that people in poor health would not be able to cope. Legal experts warned that the company could be charged with violating the law by practising disability discrimination. The lesson: If the memo you write contains secret information, send it only to those who have to act on it.
The format of a memo can vary with the kind of message that is being sent. Microsoft Word has templates for memos under the categories of professional, elegant and contemporary. These are among the most downloaded memo templates, and can make the task of formatting the memo easy. The content and the tone, of course, are to be contributed by the writer.
V.R. Narayanaswami, a former professor of English, has written several books and articles on the usage of the language. He will look at the peculiarities of business and popular English usage in his fortnightly column. Comments can be sent to plainspeaking@livemint.com
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First Published: Sun, Nov 23 2008. 11 50 PM IST