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When Did We Stop Getting the Memo?

From indispensable office communication to relic of a bygone age, let’s remember the memorandum

“Death by memo”: It’s a complaint often heard in the workplace, when great ideas get stomped into dust by numbing protocols and procedure. But for all its reputation as the last word in banal bureaucratic buzz-kill, the internal memorandum has often, in its history, carried actual life-or-death consequences.

For example, in 2003, The Atlantic investigated 57 memos that summarized death-penalty clemency cases for George W. Bush during his tenure as Governor of Texas. They found, “Governor Bush frequently approved executions based on only the most cursory briefings on the issues in dispute.” That wouldn’t have been an issue at all if a 1963 memo to the Supreme Court had succeeded in convincing Chief Justice Earl Warren that the death penalty should be deemed unconstitutional. And who knows what kind of world we’d be living in if the 1940 Frisch-Peierls memorandum had never been drafted? It argued the case for the “construction of a ‘superbomb’ based on a nuclear chain reaction in uranium,” and reignited British scientists’ interest in atomic weapons, which ultimately led to the Manhattan Project, Hiroshima, Nagasaki and all that followed.

So maybe it’s a good thing for our continued survival that, in the age of a-dozen-a-day all-staff emails, the memo itself seems to have fallen out of circulation. When was the last time, for instance, that you had this kind of conversation at the office?

“It’s true that we’re no longer using memos as frequently as we once did,” says communication coach and consultant Dan Oliverio, who sees the status of the once-mighty memorandum as now diluted under a tide of emails, texts, IMs, tweets and Slacks. Oliverio defines the memo in contrast to emails and letters, as communication that’s always aimed at an internal audience, “usually longer, more detailed and often standing independently as a reference document.” Adding to their anachronistic image, he continues, is the fact that memos, “are an artifact of organizations that were very hierarchical and used a lot of top-down communication. Today’s businesses are often more lateral than vertical, and a missive from on high doesn’t fit that new organizational structure.”

“Nevertheless,” argues Oliverio, “a company still needs a common set of facts, goals and policies to be effective and coherent. Memos more than emails still fulfill that communication goal.”

Evidence that memos — both well judged and ill — can still carry influence in even the most digitally advanced workplaces comes from Apple’s CEO, Tim Cook, who recently dropped a memo to acknowledge his firm’s landmark trillion-dollar valuation while politely warning its 123,000-strong workforce not to get too excited over it (that includes you, Siri). In August 2017, Google found that memoranda, unlike search histories, can be difficult to erase after one circulated by a staff engineer, James Damore, sparked an inferno of internet controversy around both its content — which included the assertion that “biological causes” rather than gender biases “may explain why we don’t see equal representation of women in tech and leadership” — and Damore’s subsequent dismissal.

In an era of high-profile server-hacking (e.g., Sony, Hillary Clinton) and instant infamy via social media (e.g., this exasperated Australian boss), where memos so often wind up as fumbled public-relations grenades, it perhaps isn’t surprising that the genre’s golden age was pre-internet.

As editor-in-chief of Vogue in the 1960s, Diana Vreeland was celebrated for her volleys of arch and meticulous memos — such as this one which begins: “I am extremely disappointed that no one has taken the slightest interest in freckles on the models…” By contrast, the cache of typewritten notes spat out in the 1970s by Mike Davis, the owner of Houston hell-firm Tiger Oil Company, has earned him latter-day notoriety as the “world’s meanest boss,” someone for whom the phrase “take a memo” clearly meant “in an orifice where it does not belong.” Here’s one of his more concise savagings:

“Idle conversation and gossip in this office among employees will result in immediate termination.

Don’t talk about other people and other things in this office.

DO YOUR JOB AND KEEP YOUR MOUTH SHUT!”

In their heyday, memos also could be genuinely inspiring. However cynical you might be about the movie business, you can’t read the weirdly gripping 28-page memo that former Disney boss Jeffrey Katzenberg circulated to re-energize his studio executives in 1991 without internally bouncing a cane off the floor and belting out “Hooray for Hollywood!” (It’s often cited as the inspiration for the Mission Statement that kicks off the movie Jerry Maguire.)

So the next time you crack your knuckles, hit caps lock and type those fatal four characters “MEMO” into the subject line, just be aware that you’re dragging a lot of heritage behind you. How can you live up to it? “Good memos focus on the recipients and making their work lives easier,” says Oliverio, who has taught business communications at several universities, including the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business. So above all, he advises, you should consider the audience who will be reading it and shape your message so it’s relevant to their working lives.

“The most frequent mistake I see people make when writing a memo is that they focus on the page and not on the people,” says Oliverio. “Managers want to ‘strike the right tone,’ ‘motivate employees’ or ‘be positive.’ That’s great, but none of that will be achieved using only safe clichés and peppy buzzwords.”

Buzzy phrases you might want to avoid using carelessly in a memo include: “bandwidth,” “all hands on deck,” “the bottom line” and “team players” — because lapsing into cliché, says Oliverio, is at best “ineffective; at worst, it impugns your credibility as someone who doesn’t need to be listened to.”

Similarly, it’s good practice to omit empty instructions to employees such as “be aware,” “keep in mind,” “try to avoid,” “make sure” and “think about.” “Phrases like these create an environment of ‘should-ing’ rather than doing.” Essentially, says Oliverio: “Don’t communicate like a worried parent. It didn’t work on you. It won’t work on your employees.”

If crafting effective memoranda sounds — as it probably should — like very hard work, bear in mind that, whether we’re aware of their continued importance in modern business or not, according to Oliverio, “Memos are indispensable.” As the name “memorandum” suggests (the Latin origin translates as “something to be brought to mind”), memos constitute the memory cells of any organization.

By way of illustration he recounts a cautionary tale from a friend who works for a fashion wholesale business: “He was telling me that they ended up shutting down a division because of a lack of memos. Things would get decided at a meeting, but there would be no written record of it. There was nowhere you could look things up or reference outside of your own memory. Even people in the same meeting frequently disagreed on what had been decided, especially several weeks later as things got rolling. In the end, things fell apart.”

Given their essential function, and until recently, universal prominence in office life, it’s a surprising fact that memos haven’t actually been around for that long. According to JoAnne Yates’s 1989 historical study “The Emergence of the Memo as a Managerial Genre” (oh yes, such a study exists), there was no established genre of communication resembling memoranda until the 1880s, when businesses began to reach a tipping point in terms of size, complexity and geographical spread.

The memo format emerged as a product of both “systematic management” — a set of new-fangled theories that were the precursor to management science — and the development of paper filing systems, which allowed companies for the first time to “depend on an organizational, rather than an individual, memory.” It wasn’t until the 1920s, according to Yates, that the genre was being recognized as a standardized form by respected business and English texts in the U.S., though the conventional title “memorandum” wasn’t generally adopted until later still.

Barely 70 years later, it was a memo that spelled the end of the memo itself — at least in its classic, Diana Vreeland typewritten form. In March 1989, the British computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee drafted a memo, which he then sent to managers at CERN in Switzerland (where he worked at the time), that outlined an idea he’d had: An idea for something called a World Wide Web.

R.I.P., then, The Memorandum: 1920s-1989. Fondly remembered as an aid to memory in day-to-day business, and for occasionally changing the world. Cause of death: By memo.