When you’re asked to write an executive memo, you need (to learn how) to be concise and to the point. When I was at Dell, working in strategy, I wrote many “executive memos.” One of the senior executives, including Michael, had a question about entering a market, buying a company, etc. and wanted our input on it. It was one of the more fun tasks we did, often in a quick half day, at most taking two days. If you strip away all the “politics” that can be layered into these memos (some executive wants you to advocate or shoot down an acquisition they like or don’t like), there’s a certain nicety to the format.
Here’s the general process and format I general used (and still do when this comes up as an analyst).
Let’s say an executive asks you what they should do about software defined networking, SDN.
First, make sure you understand what they’re looking for. “Tell me about SDN” is shit request, get more details: “do you want to enter that market, buy a company, or what?” If you can’t get more clarity, assume they want to figure out how they can make money by “doing SDN” (either using it or selling it).
Second, research the topic and get lots of citations from third parties (like the us at 451 Research – our content is almost purpose built for this type of research). No one will trust (enough) what you think so you can’t do the old “Source: my brain” as a credible citation. It’s stupid, I know. Just live with it. Use these facts and figures (market-size and growth) in your memo and cite them.
With that, plan a two to four page memo that follows this format, again using SDN as an example:
What it is – define SDN, most importantly how it differs from alternatives (“hardware defined networking”?)
A summary of what it means money-wise for the audience – usually this is sizing up the market and how “we can win” (read: make money) selling SDN. You want to dust of your Porter and beyond and figure out what assets you have as a company that will allow you to charge a premium price for the offering…or if it’s a bad idea, outline why you’re company will fail at it or that the risk is too high.
The landscape, enemies & frenemies – What parties/vendors/etc. are involved that you’ll compete with, partner with, and maybe acquire one day.
Suggested next steps, e.g., “sell SDN” or whatever – mostly an extended explanation of #2. (Also often included “do nothing, this is not profitable for us.”) Here you detail out the reasoning for #2. For example, in SDN, your company might have trust with a large enterprise customer base that would want SDN, you’re not beholden revenue wise to anti-SDN offers (no risk of self-cannibalizing), you can bring SDN to market at a lower price point than others, you can access different markets (with Dell, it was often “mid-market”) than SDN rivals can, etc.
Of course, if you wanted to be all orthodox Minto, you’d switch the order of #1 and #2 above.
Wingdings and emailing
Diagrams, charts, and other stuff are just icing on the cake. Also, when you email it, write a part that can put plunked into the email itself so people don’t actually have to open the attachment (yeah, your memo will probably be a Word doc). Most of your audience will skim your summary on their phone during some boring meeting, maybe opening the document then, and perhaps actually reading it later.
Cut out the teaching fluff
One last mental hack you have to do is cut out “throat clearing,” as Jason Snell puts it. In this context, the reader is not really interested in learning the subject to much, hearing the history, or anything that isn’t core to the question “is this a something I should be interested in business wise.” All that will come later if the memo leads to next steps.