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How to Write Memos Shareholders Will Read

Dear Mary: 

Our co-op board does its best to keep owners informed. Where we struggle is getting them to take action. That became very clear back in April as we prepared for a possible strike by the building’s unionized staff. How many times should we have to tell people to pick up an ID card from the concierge so they can get into the building? Why should we have to answer a hundred questions about things we already explained in very thorough memos? It felt like they didn’t read anything we sent. Can we get better at this, or are we just fighting human nature? 

—Unread in Union Square


Dear Unread:

Without seeing what you sent, I can’t say exactly what you could have done better. But I reviewed many examples of strike-preparedness memos. Most lacked the basic characteristics of an effective call to action. The next time you need to get your owners to “just do it,” keep the following in mind. 


1. Identify your audience and your goal. Who has to do what after getting this piece of communication? You must start with that in mind. Then you can back into what those people need to do. If your audience is residents and you need them to pick up an ID card, send a targeted email that clearly states the basic who/what/where info: “All residents need to pick up a strike ID card at the front desk ASAP. In the event of a strike, you’ll need this card to get into the building.” 


2. Focus. You say your memos were “very thorough.” That could be part of your problem! Many of the memos I reviewed were overwhelming and confusing. They included useful info about what residents had to do to prepare for a possible strike, but mixed in with those directives were details of what residents may have to do if one actually occurred. Also included were amenities that would become unavailable. All this was contained in lengthy memos sent well before the strike deadline. 


This approach reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of how people process information. If the writer doesn’t focus, readers have to sort through a wall of words to pick out what’s important and what they have to do right now. Many simply don’t bother. What works better: multiple short, highly focused messages. “Do A, B, and C now to prepare” should be separate from “If this happens, you’ll have to do D and E.” 


3. Make it highly readable. When something looks hard to read, people interpret it as also being hard to do. The frequent result: They don’t read or act. So what makes a communication easy to read? Short sentences, short paragraphs and bullet points. White space on the page. And a reading level around the seventh or eighth grade. (Microsoft Word can figure this out for you.) That’s not demeaning. Instead, it respects readers’ time and reduces the mental effort they need to expend to understand you.


What doesn’t help? Fully justified text — that is, straight margins on both sides. It’s much harder to read unless you’re using publishing software. Same goes for UPPER CASE or, even worse, UNDERLINED BOLD UPPERCASE. I saw many lengthy memos using this well-intentioned but misguided attempt to create clarity and urgency. Your communication should invite people in. It shouldn’t look like you’re shouting. Or sending them a subpoena. 


So yes, you can get better. Follow these three steps, and your odds of getting owner action will greatly improve.


Mary Federico serves on the board of her 240-unit Upper West Side condominium. Through her consultancy, Organizational Behavior Strategies, she helps leaders use behavioral science to improve their organizations.

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