How to cut the jargon and write an inspirational management memo
21 October 2015 -
Twitter’s Jack Dorsey is the latest CEO to miss the mark with a staff memo, but there are many examples of managers failing massively when it comes to trying to inspire their staff with a well-timed message
Twitter’s new permanent chief executive Jack Dorsey tried to take an alternative approach to cold and impersonal internal communications, with a ‘jargon-free’ memo detailing the layoff of more than 300 employees.
However, the plain-spoken, straight-talking message was littered with ambiguous management speak and didn’t deliver on the ‘jargon-free’ promise Dorsey had made in the opening of the memo to staff released last week: “Emails like this are usually riddled with corporate speak so I’m going to give it to you straight.”
Dorsey continued the memo with a reference to the firm’s need for a “streamlined roadmap” and that Twitter management “feel strongly that Engineering will move much faster with a smaller and nimbler team, while remaining the biggest percentage of our workforce. And the rest of the organization will be streamlined in parallel”.
In other words, the corporation has too many engineers, they will be the first to be made redundant, with other departments facing a similar fate.
But while Dorsey’s message may have missed the mark, memos are ideal for communicating with colleagues en masse and quickly. They are short and simple messages that convey information and instructions to be acted upon by readers. Despite the emergence of other communication systems, such as instant messaging in the workplace, the ability to use memos correctly is still valued as a valuable skill in the business world, especially in the ever-changing tech industries.
In 2012, a survey of the University of New Haven’s alumni and the employers of its graduates found that almost half (47%) believed that letters and memos are still “critically important”, while a further 51% said it is “somewhat important” in preparation for an engineering career.
Nevertheless, many executives have fallen foul of delivering well-written memos by muddling their messages with confusing and cold corporate words, when normal terms and delivery would suffice. Former Nokia CEO Stephen Elop infamously issued a memo to his staff expressing his disappointment at the declining mobile phone company missing opportunities in the market and falling perilously behind rivals Apple and Samsung.
Going viral online, the leaked memo became a subject of mockery, rather than a motivating tool for employees, as Elop strangely drew parallels between the company’s underperformance and a story of a man jumping into icy waters to avoid being burnt alive on a burning platform.
To date, Coffee retailer Starbucks’ founder Howard Schultz’ ‘call to arms’ memo in 2007 ranks as one of the most engaging and well-written memos issued by an executive to their staff.
With boardroom buzzwords limited, Schultz’ memo admits his part in making decisions to growth the company at the expense of “watering down of the Starbucks experience”. From opting for flavour-locked packaging to using automatic coffee machines, Schultz said the firm had removed “much of the romance and theatre that was in play”.
By detailing the different decisions made by the organisation’s leadership, supported by their reasoning and intentions, Schultz shows his deep understanding of every aspect of the business, as well as revealing to staff the difficult dilemmas he has faced in balancing the chain’s immense popularity and expansion, While still staying true to the company culture.
Schultz wrote: “Clearly we have had to streamline store design to gain efficiencies of scale and to make sure we had the ROI on sales to investment ratios that would satisfy the financial side of our business. However, one of the results has been stores that no longer have the soul of the past and reflect a chain of stores vs. the warm feeling of a neighbourhood store.
“Some people even call our stores sterile, cookie cutter, no longer reflecting the passion our partners feel about our coffee. In fact, I am not sure people today even know we are roasting coffee. You certainly can’t get the message from being in our stores.”
There are several key, yet simple, tips managers can take away from Schultz’ memo, which is not present in Dorsey or Elop’s offerings, to improve their internal communication skills:
Whether the news regards pay rises or layoffs, memos should be written in clear and uncertain terms explaining what instructions employees are required to follow.
Put some thought into it
Especially on negative issues such as redundancies, managers are advised to take some time to explain their message. Remember who your reader is, and be thoughtful of the questions they are likely to have, rather than making a rudimentary and generic statement.
Corporate language can sometimes come across as very cold and robotic; managers should remain professional, while delivering information in a more straight-talking and direct fashion.
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