[By Nick Sinai and Marina Nitze]
“Writing is more than a vehicle for communicating ideas. It’s a tool for crystallizing ideas. Writing exposes gaps in your knowledge and logic. It pushes you to articulate assumptions and consider counterarguments.” Adam Grant
As a young aide to Henry Kissinger, the National Security Advisor in the Nixon White House, Winton Lord knew he was working for a tough boss. As the legend goes, Lord submitted a written draft of a presidential foreign policy report to Kissinger, who called him into his office the next day, demanding, “Is this the best you can do?”
Lord replied, “Herny, I thought so, but I’ll try again,” and submitted an updated version a few days later. Kissinger called Lord the next day, and said “Are you sure this is really the best you can do?” Lord replied, “Well, I really thought so. I’ll try one more time.” He kept revising, and Kissinger kept asking him the same question and sending him back to rewrite it, again and again.
Eventually, Lord got fed up with the back-and-forth, and snapped, saying: “Henry, I’ve beaten my brains out — this is the ninth draft. I know it’s the best I can do: I can’t possibly improve one more word.” Kissinger calmly looked at Lord and said “In that case, now I’ll read it.”
Write a Memo to Help Refine Your Idea
Our time in the White House — Nick for four years, Marina for a year — helped build our memo writing skills. Sometimes you would have months or weeks to write a memo — and sometimes you only had a few hours. Our experience quickly taught us the power of persuasive, brief memos to pitch an idea.
Writing a short memo — if done well — helps organize and refine your thinking.
It forces you to clearly describe the situation, state your hypothesis clearly, provide evidence and data to back up your assertions, and show that you are considering counterarguments and criticism.
When we served in the Obama White House, we worked for the President’s Science Advisor and Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy, Dr. John Holdren. He would famously copyedit his staff’s memos, sending them back to the authors if they weren’t good enough. You didn’t want to be the staffer that got Dr. Holden’s copy edits back! Holdren, unlike Kissinger, didn’t play mind games; he was a kind and brilliant leader of our office. But the net result was the same — the staff quickly learned to bring exceptionally well-written memos to him.
Current Domestic Policy Council head (and former National Security Advisor) Dr. Susan Rice is also reportedly a stickler for excellence in written memos. As her former Chief of Staff, Meredith Webster, told Politico: “I did some of my best writing because of her. She’s reading every single piece, and if it stretches to multiple pages it better be useful information and a reason why.”
One of the best ways to communicate the change you want to see is to improve your writing skills by getting critical feedback and relentlessly revising your memo. We workshopped our memos in the White House with coworkers, solicited their candid constructive criticism, and often rewrote the memos multiple times before submitting them to Dr. Holdren.
If you can share your memo with friends or colleagues who are appropriately harsh critics, it will sharpen your skills and thinking even more, and ensure your final product is bulletproof.
Even great, professional writers use the process. In an Objective Standard interview, Adam Grant, the bestseller author, notes the value of getting feedback on written drafts for him: “part of the discipline for me is just doing a lot of ruthless rewriting and engaging my challenge network to trash draft after draft.”
Write a Memo to Establish A Common Understanding
Of course, the White House isn’t the only culture that prizes memo writing. Amazon, under Jeff Bezos, eschews PowerPoint presentations in favor of a six-page memo. It forces Amazon employees to explain the problem, discuss alternatives, and argue for a course of action, all in prose.
Standard practice in Amazon meetings is to reserve time at the beginning for all of the participants to read the memo. It’s an effective technique to ensure that everyone in the meeting has a shared level of understanding of the facts.
Obviously, there will be some people who will be experts, but if the point of the meeting is to debate options and get consensus, ensuring a base level of shared understanding is important to getting truly informed agreement among attendees. Even if there is a disagreement about the course of action among attendees, at least everyone is operating with the same facts.
Write a Memo to Persuade Others
Most of the time, however, your memo will be read asynchronously and your readers won’t have the luxury of time set aside in a meeting to fully absorb its content. More often, they will glance at it right before the meeting or discussion of the topic. A concise and persuasive memo will help you take advantage of every opportunity to get your ideas in front of the right people.
And the fact that you don’t need to be present is exactly why the written word is powerful. Your memo can go places you can’t. It can be in multiple places at once. If you don’t have access to a decision maker for your idea, share your memo with someone who does. Your allies can get your memo in front of people you may not have access to. They can easily incorporate it into their own document or email in support of your idea. And your memo can be shared with dozens or even hundreds of coworkers, thanks to the ease of email and distribution lists.
A well-written, persuasive memo that clearly communicates your idea and its impact can take on a life of its own and speak on your behalf in rooms you never dreamed of entering.
Learn More About the Power of the Written Memo
How do you get your ideas heard at work?
Write a simple memo and ask for feedback on the idea. Gain support for your idea by sharing the memo with allies and others who are connected to decision-makers. Incorporate feedback that you receive and acknowledge the sources of feedback, showing how your ideas evolve based on input from others.
In our book, Hack Your Bureaucracy, we dedicate an entire chapter to a particular form of the written memo: the one-pager.
The brevity is particularly powerful, both for you getting to the essence of the idea, and to ensure more people actually read and understand it. Whether you’re seeking to change a policy, introduce a new initiative, or request project funding, a one-pager helps you articulate your idea for change and provides a useful artifact as you build support for your ideas within your company or organization.
Want to learn some practical tips on how to write a compelling one-pager and how to use it as a tool for success? Buy our book, which is available for pre-order on Amazon, Indiebound, Bookshop.org, or Barnes & Noble now!