Creating an Executive Memo

This week I had to work on an end-of-the-year summary memo that was going to an executive. The original draft took me three hours while the next draft took an hour–I kid you not. The next draft will probably take half that time. Why is that? The short answer is that a lot more thought goes into an internal message to the “Big Boss” than you might imagine.

The Ugly First Draft

My (and likely your) first draft tends to be long, rambling, and somewhat chaotic for several reasons:

Your customer might not necessarily know what they want yet

If you’re writing to (not for) an executive, you are likely writing on behalf of someone else, unless you’re the one whose name is ultimately going in the signature block. Maybe they think they want a high-level summary of everything the organization has done. Maybe they want to focus on the good stuff…or the bad stuff. Maybe they have a broader point to make.

Why should there be all this confusion and doubt? Because people change their minds or have lots of ideas going through their mind at once. It’s not meant to vex you, that’s just how people are. As a writer, you owe it to your customer to make your best effort at whatever you’re asked to produce…and yes, put your own spin on it if necessary. Sometimes, putting your words in your customer’s literary mouth can help them realize what she or he does or does not want to say. I don’t mind this–it’s the mystery of writing a first draft.

You could have multiple points of view regarding what should be included

Customer: We need an upbeat memo telling the Chairman of the Board about all the great things we did this year.
Me: Do we have a list?
Customer: Sure. I’ll forward you the inputs from all of the top managers. By the way, each manager will want to make certain that their stuff is included.

I then receive all the inputs, and it amounts to…a lot of content and perspectives. The more people you get involved, the more opinions you’ll have to incorporate. This leads to the next problem…

You might have more content than you have pages allowed for the final product

Somewhere along the line–probably when I started writing for the Department of Defense–I learned that executives (at the time, retired colonels and generals) liked their content brief. As one retired general put it bluntly, “Don’t waste my time.”

In Tech Writing Land, that usually means you’ll be writing a document that is no more than two pages long. Sometimes no longer than one. Sometimes it’s a paragraph. That means each word has to count and the important points or messages need to be clear on the page even if you don’t get to include all of the details a lower-level manager thinks are terribly important.

It might take a few attempts to get the tone and level of detail right

You might or might not have met or worked with your customer (a Boss somewhat lower on the food chain) to date. You might need to read a few samples or listen to him or her talk to get a feel for how s/he uses words. What is their tone? What is their diction like? How long are their sentences? You must somehow capture these stylistic behaviors in your prose, and the odds are good that you’ll need several attempts to get things “just right.”

The Revision Process

In my first memo draft, I will often try to comply with all of the instructions I’m given and include all of the content I’m given. This will result in an imperfect product that doesn’t meet one of my requirements: length. My writing priority is to nail down the organization or flow of the document: what content to put in what order. Surprisingly, this organizing function usually holds up better than anything else I do (including tone or word choices).

If grad school taught me anything, it was how to organize my content into a flow that makes sense. Maybe your specialty is tone. Or level of detail. Or making multiple authors read like one. Whatever your specific mix of skills, make sure you’re applying those skills to your content as best you can. Others can apply their own expertise to help you make the collaborative document better.

The Final Version

After a lot of back and forth between you, your customer, possibly your customer’s peers, as well as another editor, your memo will go to the person whose name is going on the final product. Do you expect the collaborative efforts of all those people will result a product the final customer will accept without changes? Don’t. And don’t get disheartened if the Slightly Less Big Boss sends the document back with a lot of changes. Again, it’s their signature and ultimately their reputation that will come under scrutiny when the memorandum reaches the top person in your organization.

You will learn a lot about the final customer’s preferences by their markups, so that will be good information for next time. Also, once you address the final customer’s markups, keeping the tone and detail at the level specified, you’ll be done. There won’t be another filter or review. The only feedback you’re likely to receive–if it’s shared with you–is what the Big, Big Boss said in response to the memo you helped create. If s/he responds as expected, your mission was successful. If not, well, that’s a good lesson for next time, too, isn’t it?


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About Bart Leahy

Freelance Technical Writer, Science Cheerleader Event & Membership Director, and an all-around nice guy. Here to help.
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