When to Write a Memo, Not an Email

Written by Lynn Gaertner-Johnston, Syntax Training
Before emails demanded everyone’s attention, people communicated internally through a medium called the interoffice memorandum—the memo. We typed and printed it, signed or initialed it, and distributed it through interoffice mail to people who read it to make decisions, take action, or have essential information.


These days we have replaced memos with rampant emails. We have pushed email too far, expecting it to communicate long, complex, important messages to everyone. Our inboxes are stuffed, and those essential messages are not being read.

It’s time to take the pressure off emails. If you want people to read your important ideas and information, you need to revive the memo. Consider these suggestions:

1. Recognize the best uses of email. Emails win for fast, temporary communications that readers quickly read, act on, and delete. Emails excel at succinct requests and replies, speedy updates, short reminders or check-ins, time-sensitive announcements, and similar short-lived messages. They are perfect for briefly introducing attachments such as memos.

2. Use a memo when you are writing a message built to last. If your communication is a detailed proposal, a significant report, a serious recommendation, a technical explanation, meeting minutes, a new policy, or something else that readers will consult more than once, make it a memo. Your readers will be able to save the document, read it, and find it when they need the information again.

3. Use a memo when formatting matters. If the piece contains bullet points, bold headings, columns, tables, a graph, or even a good balance of white space, a memo will help you retain that formatting. To guarantee your formatting, save the memo as a PDF. If your audience reads emails on their phones, an attachment may be the only way to preserve the formatting you intend.

4. If people will print your communication, use a memo rather than an email. If your message belongs on a bulletin board—for example, in an employee break room—write a memo. If people will discuss your ideas at a meeting, write a memo to make it easy for them to print the document you intended. 

5. To communicate formally, choose a memo. Memos provide a place at the top of the message to insert the company name and logo and the professional titles of senders and receivers. Those inclusions make the message appear more formal. Also, a well-formatted message conveys significance.

6. When you worry that your message is too long as an email, write a memo. Impossibly long emails often result when you try to incorporate important, lasting information in them. But memos work best when people will return to your message for information. (See Point 2.) For instance, if you are communicating the details of the four-stage construction project, use a memo. To convey pros and cons of a major purchasing decision, lay out your research in a memo.

Attach your memo to an email that gives your readers a brief summary of the memo contents. For some readers, that summary will be enough. Those who need the information will read and save the memo.

7. To communicate complex information to people outside your organization (clients, citizens, etc.), consider a memo or a letter. A letter is the traditional format for external correspondence, especially to people you serve, such as customers and patients. But you can choose a memo to write to vendors, consultants, members, clients, professional peers, and others who collaborate with you to get results.

8. To send your memo, simply attach it to a brief email. Or send a printed copy through interoffice mail if that approach makes sense.

I have attached a sample memo to illustrate a standard format.

The memo is no dinosaur. Use it for your significant communications, and your messages will come across as professional, relevant, and of lasting importance.

Follow Syntax Training on Facebook and on Twitter @SyntaxLynn.

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This blog is Zoe's way to spread the joy of finding and learning interesting bits about English. Join her and learn something new every time.

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