SM151 Topic Briefing Memo Guide:
Clear, Concise, Compelling,
Prof. Nancy E. Lee
What is a memo?
Before the advent of email, memoranda (or “memos”) were the primary written form of
communication among coworkers within organizations while letters were the primary
form of written communication addressed to people outside an organization such as
customers, suppliers, and vendors. Since the advent of email, memos have become
documents created within organizations when the information they present will be kept
on file and become a resource or a record of findings, policy statements, or decisions.
What is a Topic Briefing Memo?
A“Topic Briefing Memo” reports the findings of one’s research and may or may not
include a position on a topic. For example, a decision maker may ask someone on his/her
team to research a topic and simply “write up what you learned” or the same decision
maker may ask someone to research the same topic and “present your recommendation
on what we should do.” In both cases, the memo presents a conclusion at the beginning of
the memo. For the “write up what you learned” memo, the conclusion is the key take-
away or most important point. For the “present your recommendation of what we should
do” memo, the conclusion is the recommendation.
Why write a Topic Briefing Memo?
Busy senior-level decision makers often request that someone on their team create a
Topic Briefing Memo to provide them with information they need to make a decision.
They do not have time to do the research themselves, so they ask someone who reports to
them to give them the information they need. Often this means that the memo writer will
consult several sources and present the decision maker with a synthesis of the sources
he/she consulted. Other times, members of a work team will write Topic Briefing Memos
as part of a division of labor. Each member will take a part of a large, complex research
project and share his/her findings with the other members of the team through a memo.
What does a Topic Briefing Memo include?
The specific content of a Topic Briefing Memo includes only the sections that are
relevant to the purpose and the audience of the memo.Any Topic Briefing Memo may
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© Nancy E. Lee include the following, but every Topic Briefing Memos does not necessarily include all of
• Conclusion, Recommendation, or Key Takeaways
• Definition or description of the issue
• Relevant background
• Current status
• Key facts
• Central issues, problems, opportunities or tensions surrounding the issue
• Options or alternatives
What makes a Topic Briefing Memo effective?
All good writing meets the needs of the writer and the reader of the specific document.
A good Topic Briefing Memo is clear
Readers of well-written Topic Briefing Memos know immediately what the memo is
about, why they are reading it, and the key takeaways of the memo-writer’s research. The
memo contains all the information that the reader needs and no more. The sentences are
easy to read because they follow patterns the reader expects to encounter, and the
vocabulary is precise. The memo organization follows a logical sequence, and the writer
helps the reader navigate by providing appropriate transitional cues. Use of the proper
formatting and white space makes information easy to find.
A good Topic Briefing Memo is concise
Good Topic Briefing Memos are short, but a short memo is not necessarily a concise
memo. Amemo may be short because the writer leaves out important information.A
concise memo provides all the information the reader needs using the fewest words
possible without oversimplifying or creating an abrupt, terse tone.Average sentence
length is 20 words or fewer. The writer gets to the point, providing only necessary (no
extraneous) information. Paragraphs are 6-8 lines long. There are no words or phrases
that do not add substantively to the document.
A good Topic Briefing Memo is compelling
• Subject lines and headlines are specific.
• Recommendations or key takeaways are clearly stated, not implied.
• Writing that provides both quantitative information and the context for the
information and proposals is more compelling than writing that simply asks the
reader to believe broad statements.
A good Topic Briefing Memo is context-specific
Agood Topic Briefing Memo meets the needs of the reader. The content answers the