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When to Write a Memo, Not an Email

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.

Graphic illustrating the when to write a memo, not an email. For example, a memo is used for formal communication, whereas an email is used for short updates and messages.

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 saw the movie “Jurassic World” last week. It’s about dinosaurs thriving today, at a time when the creatures don’t belong. You may think of memos as dinosaurs too, but think again. The memo can help your messages come across as professional, relevant, and of lasting importance.


This article originally appeared in our monthly ezine, Better Writing at Work. Subscribe to receive a practical article in your inbox each month.

Syntax Training

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By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English.

10 comments on “When to Write a Memo, Not an Email”

  • Wonderful piece Lynn, very appropriate. We are focusing on business writing and there some in our group that think memos are outdated. I am sending them your piece and have added one additional point. When the information to be conveyed is confidential, classified, or will be used in legal proceedings, the memo is the only way to go.It is the only way to restrict access to sensitive information.

    Hope you find this useful.


  • Thank you so much. I agree with Lynn-this is helpful for business students as well as for teachers like myself:-)

  • I really disagree. I got half way through this and had to check the date, expecting it to have been written in 2003. I think working with paper documents is old fashioned and not a good use of the functionality that technology gives us.

    If I got an important memo on paper, I would be confused and annoyed.

    How would I reply to give questions, comments, and feedback?

    How could I quote passages it in my reply without having to transcribe it manually? Along those lines, I also couldn’t easily adapt the phrasing and structure into a larger document to turn the memo into a project plan or proposal.

    Where the heck would I even store it to refer back to the message in the future? I have extensive email archives, all of which are searchable through gmail, and I regularly have to pull up a thread from many years ago based on half-remembered words or phrases. There’s no text search in my file cabinet!

    A lot of what you wrote is helpful as a good way to write a thoughtful memo vs. a short email, but that memo would be more useful if sent by email.

    Just my opinion, your company culture dictates a lot of this.

  • Adding attachments bloats the size of emails and takes up space on email servers. In my opinion, if you can say what you need to say in the body of the email, put it in the body. I’ve seen too many memo attachments with just a single paragraph.

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