How to Write an Effective Interoffice Memo in 2020

Andy Cook
September 28, 2020

Every day, workers around the world fight a constant battle against their ever-growing inboxes. The average American office worker spends nearly 30% of every workday reading and responding to over 120 messages

That sheer volume of communication means each message must clamor to capture its readers’ attention. Too often, corporate communications don’t meet the minimum threshold to do so. Case in point: the infamous interoffice memo. 

Employees use interoffice memos to communicate an idea or message across departments within a company. The important information these memos contain can go unread or unremembered when they’re dully written, when they don’t inspire colleagues to take action, and when they’re only sent via email – not stored anywhere for future reference. 

Interoffice memos get a bad reputation, because they too often embody these very traits. They’re boring, they’re impersonal, they’re confusing, and they’re easy victims of the information overload to which modern workers constantly fall victim.

What makes an effective interoffice memo? 

Modern interoffice memos don’t need to (and shouldn’t!) be boring or unhelpful. A smarter and more empathetic approach to drafting and sending interoffice memos can help hold employees’ attention, answer their questions, and inspire them to act. By adjusting their format, content, and delivery, company leaders can turn interoffice memos into frequently-referenced tools that connect and engage their workers.

How? Here’s what makes an effective interoffice memo in 2020. 

Interesting, not just informative

Your interoffice memos compete for attention with every message your colleagues receive via email, chat, or otherwise. They should be memorable, prompting readers to pause and devote their full attention to the message. Stereotypical interoffice memos are not captivating. Their dry tones and rote presentation of facts prompt yawns, not excitement. 

One great way to capture a reader’s attention? Tell a story.

Employees are people, and people respond to stories. For decades, businesses have used storytelling to attract customers, counting on the incredible neurological response it evokes in humans. When they encounter a story, human brains produce the stress hormone cortisol during tense moments and the feel-good hormone oxytocin during lighter ones. Upon the moment of relief when a story reaches its final happy ending, human brains release dopamine – a chemical that induces feelings of optimism. Stories produce a full range of physical and emotional reactions in people and can be one of the most effective tools in creating the personal experience they crave.

Interoffice memos that adopt a storytelling approach can thus connect with readers on a much deeper level than can memos that purely report facts. Stories draw readers in, grabbing – and, importantly, holding – their attention as they present salient information. 

For example: in 2011, then-CEO Stephen Elop wrote a now famous interoffice memo to his Nokia employees as the company was being outperformed by both Apple and Android. He began not with a trite salutation, nor even with frightening statistics. Rather, he started with a simple story. 

“There is a pertinent story,” Elop wrote, “about a man who was working on an oil platform in the North Sea.” Elop went on to tell a tale of panicked, desperate choices: the man woke up to find his platform on fire. He needed to choose between remaining on the burning platform or diving into the frigid ocean. He jumped – and, against all odds, he survived.

The story presented an arresting image, which Elop then used as an analogy for his company’s deteriorating market position. “We too,” Elop wrote, “are standing on a ‘burning platform,’ and we must decide how we are going to change our behavior.” Employees reading the memo would have been hooked – and they would have felt a more immediate, emotional connection to the challenges they faced. Elop’s choice to tell a story immediately grabbed his readers’ attention – and the tale’s drama matched the gravity of his concern about Nokia’s performance. 

Try taking a similar storytelling approach with your own interoffice memos. As you write your messages, strive to create a compelling narrative that makes your memo too interesting and emotionally arresting for your colleagues to ignore. 

Aspirational and actionable 

The best interoffice memos outline clear steps recipients should take upon reading. They set out a grand, aspirational vision for the company, inspiring employees to take immediate action. Conversely, ineffective interoffice memos leave readers confused and wondering “ok, so…now what?”

In early 2019, BuzzFeed Founder & CEO Jonah Peretti wrote an interoffice memo grandly titled How to Save the Internet. “The internet is at a crossroads,” he wrote. “In one direction, there is a flaming dumpster fire, pushing people apart. In the other, the internet is a source of joy and truth, connecting people together. We have the chance right now to work together to build a better future. BuzzFeed has a big role to play.” Immediately, Peretti established an aspiration for every BuzzFeed employee in every department. Their mission was to make a difference – not just for the company, but for every Internet user worldwide. 

Peretti’s overarching theme was aspirational, but the content of the memo itself was supremely actionable. After establishing the tech and media landscape in which the company found itself, he laid out his six-step plan to bridge the gap between tech and media. If BuzzFeed employees could action these items, Peretti indicated through the interoffice memo, they could improve the general online experience in the process. 

Upon reading the memo, employees knew both their tactical marching orders and the ultimate mission Buzzfeed hoped to accomplish. One might not have been as effective without the other. The list of action items alone might have felt too pedantic – like just another work email providing instructions and setting goals. Conversely, the lofty statements about saving the Internet might have felt too grandiose without the tactical next steps to anchor them. 

Their combination, though, could prompt both pride in Buzzfeed as an organization and a spirit of action among employees. That is an inspiring, effective interoffice memo.

When drafting your own interoffice memos, strike a similar balance between aspiration and action. Remind employees of the company’s vision and goals while inspiring them to take immediate action to realize this vision.

Accessible

How many interoffice memos have you received over the course of your career? How many of them do you remember? How many of them have you re-read? 

When you send interoffice memos via email, they can quickly become lost in the deep sea of messages your colleagues receive every day. That means employees can quickly miss pertinent information housed in these memos. It means they might have difficulty recalling information they can only vaguely remember having read in an older memo. It means that new employees don’t have the opportunity to read and learn from memos that were sent before they joined the company. 

If interoffice memos are only circulated via email, new employees can only access historic memos if an older employee forwards them. This process is clunky and time consuming, and it strips new employees of agency in their own education.

Allowing new employees to sift through a repository of interoffice memos can help flatten their initial learning curve, as they gain insights about the company’s most salient information and events via historic interoffice memos. It also reduces friction between old and new employees, allowing new employees to take independent action in referencing older interoffice memos to answer their own questions.

To be truly effective, interoffice memos should be accessible remotely, so any employee anywhere can access them at any time. Additionally, they should be searchable, so employees can easily extract key answers to their questions from older documents they may have lost or never received. 

Ideally, companies would house interoffice memos in a dedicated internal knowledge base. There, employees could search for relevant information and refer back to historic interoffice memos on an as-needed basis. That would make interoffice memos much more effective – and would likely reduce a company’s reliance on email to share its most important information.

Use Interoffice Memos to Keep Your Employees Connected & Informed

The way we communicate at work is changing. More employees than ever work remotely from different time zones and rely on email, chat, and asynchronous forms of communication to interact with their coworkers. 

Traditionally, employees may have perceived interoffice memos as dull documents to be filed away and quickly forgotten. Now, though, companies can do better. Rather than be another boring missive that’s deleted almost as soon as it’s received, an interoffice memo can be a tool that keeps your team connected and informed. 

The most effective interoffice memos in 2020 are those that consider the readers they’re targeting. Writers of successful interoffice memos understand that to fully capture their colleagues’ divided attention, they must create memos that are interesting as well as informative. They must both inspire and compel action. And, in an environment where workers must spend nearly a third of their days managing their email inboxes, effective interoffice memos should be housed in an internal knowledge base, where they’re easily accessible to every employee, everywhere.