5 essential elements of a good email memo

Many email conversations float around in fragmented threads with a fluctuating list of participants and out-of-sequence responses and comments. This is why Google created its Wave product. But, it’s going to take a long time before that platform (or something similar) is as ubiquitous as email.

Still, there is hope. There are lessons from the past – the days of typewriters and hand-written letters. Or even the early days of email.

Good old-fashioned clear, thoughtful, and organized writing can help your message survive and thrive in today’s cluttered digital world. Follow a simple format to be sure that you are heard, and that your plan stays on track. Here’s a five-point list.

1. Name names – List the people who attended the meeting, and/or are engaged in this communication. Don’t leave it up to the to: and cc: fields. Making this list an explicit part of your email memo ensures that everyone knows who is on the hook.

2. Narrative – provide a sharp, concise summary. Tell the story, but edit it down to the essential elements only.

3. The to-do list – Separate action items into a bulleted list in its own section. State the person responsible, the action item, and due date on each line of the list. Make this list complete, even if you need to repeat items mentioned in the narrative.

4. Open questions – Create a bulleted list of the questions that remain open, specifically the larger questions related to the scope and definition of the project. Include names where someone specific is responsible for an answer.

5. Summary and Next Steps – A couple of lines to wrap up your thoughts and tie things back to larger goals and a broader context. Be specific about what is expected to happen next and when (date and time of next meeting or checkpoint, for example).

Now as the discussion progresses, you’ve got a good structure to leverage for easy reference. It’s immediately clear who is on the hook for which action items and which questions remain outstanding. Periodically update and re-distribute it as needed.

Oh yeah, and forget about getting fancy with fonts and formatting – just focus on a good basic structure. And don’t put your memo in an attachment! That just slows things down and makes it cumbersome for everyone.


Photo credit: Telstar logistics