Teaching the Art of the Memo: Politics and Precision

By Rice, H. William | Business Communication Quarterly, March 1995 | Go to article overview

Teaching the Art of the Memo: Politics and Precision


Rice, H. William, Business Communication Quarterly


In order to reproduce the politically charged environment of most corporations, I turn my class into a company. Using previously designated study groups, I make one the president, another the vice president, and a final one the manager of operations. Then I give them a problem which they can handle only through memos. Outside of class, they communicate by fax machines. Inside of class, they read and discuss each other's memos. This assignment enables the instructor to drop out of the role of lecturer as students discover for themselves the complex interaction between a writer and an audience.

Anyone who has ever taught a business communication class knows that teaching students to write effective memorandums is one of the instructor's hardest tasks. The effective memorandum is brief and carefully focused. Even on a good day, the best of our students have trouble accomplishing both goals. But even if students learn to be brief and precise in their memos, they have still won only half the battle, for memos are highly political. As Booher (1987) says, "Memos are more than a forum for opinions; they are a way of dealing with people" (p. 576). The situations that bring forth these "dealing[s] with people" are as many and varied as people themselves. Instructors must teach more than language skills; they must tie these to the handling of these situations. According to Edwards (1992), the secret of writing good memos is understanding the situation, that is, knowing "what kinds of memos to avoid writing, and when not to write a memo at all" (p. 12).

Given the complexity of teaching students to write memos, it is surprising that the matter is so infrequently discussed in educational journals. The ERIC database contains only two articles that relate specifically to teaching students to write memos: Hennington's article (1978) on the use of memos as management tools, which appeared in the ABCA Bulletin, and Sellers' article (1990) called "Hope for the Hopeless Writer," which appeared in Currents. Both of these articles were oriented toward the practice of writing memos, not teaching the memo. In fact, Sellers lumps the memo and the business letter together, providing his reader with principles for improving each of these. In short, instructors do not discuss teaching the art of the memo. And yet, the memo is the one type of communication that most of us encounter on a daily basis.

Memos in Real Life

As I shuffle through the morass on my desk, I find five memos, each of them a sampling of some of those "dealing[s] with people" that Booher mentions. Here is a memo from the secretary of an administrative official at the college where I teach. She is apologizing for the fact that money contributed by faculty members for an ill colleague has been stolen. She is also asking these same faculty members to contribute more money. The politics of her dilemma are difficult indeed. She must apologize in such a way that faculty members will not accuse her of being careless and allowing the theft to take place. She must also encourage them to forget what happened to the money they have already given and give some more, assuring them that their new contributions will be safe.

Here is a memo from the chairperson of the academic computing committee. He is asking for a report from each member of the committee on computer needs within each division. Though he has no apologies to put forth, he does request an action of each committee member. Implied in his memo is an argument that such an action is appropriate and worthwhile -- the best way for the committee to carry out its business. (After all, why can't the chairperson do this nasty leg work?) Moreover, he must make sure that each member understands the division he is responsible for as well as the due date of the report. The first matter is achieved with a list; the second is achieved with promise of another memo that will give the date, time, and place of a forthcoming meeting. …

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