Don’t Bury the Lead

In journalism, there’s an expression: Don’t bury the lead (also known as the “lede”). Basically, it means you should write the most important thing first; each successive paragraph can flesh out the main idea for those who are interested in reading further. A (perhaps apocryphal) story explaining the origins of the practice is that during the Civil War, telegraph machines were unreliable and it was never clear when they would lose the connection, so it was imperative for war correspondents to deliver the big news first.

It’s the same reason politicians need a 10 second version of their pitch (before the door slams), a 30 second version (for those who pretend to be interested before the door slams), and a detailed pitch for the political geeks who invite you inside for lemonade.

A while back, I was working with a client on creating pithy and effective business memos. The most important piece of advice is to let readers know what to expect upfront, so they are less likely to get confused along the way. For instance, you could start:

  • “This memo will discuss three potential expansion strategies and our recommended course of action.” or
  • “This memo outlines next steps over the coming 90 days to implement our marketing strategy.”

Next, don’t be afraid to use lots of section headers and bullet points. Unlike in academic papers from college, brevity and clarity are rewarded. You never want a reader to feel “lost” in your memo, and section headers serve as anchors. Finally, take a break (even five minutes will do) and read it aloud. Anything that sounds off when you read it should probably be rewritten.

Just as Malcolm Gladwell revealed in The Tipping Point that toddlers stopped paying attention to Sesame Street when they were confused, the same applies to business memos. Keep it simple and clear, and Godspeed!

Dorie Clark is a marketing strategy consultant who has worked with clients including Google, Yale University, and the National Park Service. Listen to her podcasts or follow her on Twitter.