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How to write an effective e-mail message

May 12, 1999
Web posted at: 8:29 a.m. EDT (1229 GMT)

by Paula Jacobs


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(IDG) -- Although you may no longer write or receive paper memos, memo writing is alive and well. And thanks to the convenience of e-mail, your communications probably reach a much wider audience than before. So you need to make sure that your memos get your message across.

"Strong communication skills are vitally needed in today's business climate," says Alan Cunningham, a manager in the computer sciences department at NASA's Marshall Space Center, in Huntsville, Ala. "You find yourself writing to gain the support of both internal and external customers."

With IT professionals assuming broader responsibilities and accountability, memo writing has become more important, according to James Billings, a data systems coordinator at the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department.

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You need not be a professional writer to craft well-written memos. A few common-sense guidelines will get your memos noticed -- and for the right reasons.

As with any other communication, consider your audience and its possible reaction, especially to a sensitive message, advises Billings.

"Although a memo may be addressed to only one person or group, its contents may travel much further -- along with your reputation," Billings says.

The memo is a business document, not leisure reading.

"The first element of a good memo is brevity," says Michael Woffenden, an IT consultant at a financial services institution in Boston. "The writer should endeavor to get to the point and summarize as much as possible, possibly with references to where to get more information."

Make your point quickly and succinctly and give only the necessary information.

"If a memo is longer than one or two pages, I am concerned that the writer is trying to convey too much information," Woffenden says.

Use the very beginning of a memo to gain your audience's attention. Make sure your objective is clearly stated, and use the subject line to convey crucial details. Organize your memo so readers can quickly scan key information and major points. Woffenden suggests grouping topics into sections with headings.

If a memo is poorly organized or does not state an objective, the reader will not understand what it is trying to accomplish. One way to avoid this problem is to develop a quick outline of headings before you actually sit down to write.

Additionally, make sure that the memo can stand by itself. Never assume that readers have seen or read your previous memos, no matter how recent they are.

E-mail has created additional complications for memo writers.

"With today's electronic-mail systems, corporate executives can `e-mail the troops' with ease," Cunningham says. "Armed with this new power, their writing skills are suddenly visible across the organization, and the results are not always positive."

Because e-mail is so easy to use, be careful about letting down your guard.

"People are more prone to `fire off a memo' before thinking through the message they want to convey," says Woffenden says. Always re-read memos before clicking "send."

If you are sending a memo as an e-mail text file, emphasize key points with headings, bullets, or shorter paragraphs. For a spiffier presentation, send your memo as an attached document file to preserve the elements of a paper memo, such as boldfaced and underlined words.

Finally, do not use a memo to communicate highly sensitive information that should be delivered face to face. If you are not sure how a memo will be perceived, ask a trusted colleague to review it.

Paula Jacobs is a frequent contributor to InfoWorld's Enterprise Careers section. She is the principal of a business communications company in Framingham, Mass., and can be reached at

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