In February 1992, US President George Bush Sr. had an unusual problem. No, it wasn’t political. And it wasn’t a foreign policy matter either. The problem was his pet dog Ranger had put on too much weight because the loving White House staff was feeding him at all hours of the day. 

So President Bush decided to put his two-year-old dog on a weight-reduction program. He then wrote to his staff informing them of the program and asking for their cooperation. 

Bush’s memo to the White House staff on the matter is a classic example of effective written communication in the workplace. It was printed on the presidential letterhead and formatted like any other official memo. But it struck a fine balance between a stern but funny tone to inform his staff about the problem and outline the steps to solve it. This memo shows that no matter how serious or small our request to our colleagues, we can use certain techniques to write to them clearly and compellingly. 

Here’s what the presidential memo said:

Image credit: Letters of Note on Twitter

The memo is also a classic example of the Harappa GRM— or Goal, Reader and Message—Framework for persuasive writing from Harappa's Writing Proficiently course.

You need to ask yourself three sets of questions before you write anything:  

  • What is my goal? What do I want to do with my writing?

  • Who am I writing for? Who is my recipient or reader? 

  • What message do I want to convey? How will it help them, and me?

Let’s see how Bush Sr. used each element to make his writing more impactful.

Know Your Goal

Bush Sr.’s goal was simple. He wanted to inform the readers that Ranger was on a weight-loss program and instruct them to take a formal pledge not to feed him. He also wanted to persuade them to help with this endeavor by explaining the magnitude of the problem. He made it clear that this was a serious matter by giving explicit instructions and reasons for the instructions. He left no ambiguity about what he wanted his readers to do, going so far as to include the exact words for the pledge he wanted them to take. 

Remember Who Will Read It

Bush knew that the readers of his memo were government officials at the White House, and he was their boss. So the tone he used was professional and courteous. Even when he used colloquial language like “rat on someone”, he put “rat” in quotation marks. He began and ended the memo on a humorous note by using the exaggerated imagery of a Prime Hereford and a blimp to emphasize how overweight Ranger had become. One can imagine White House staffers giggling at the memo but being unable to ignore it. 

Clarify Your Message

President Bush wasn’t merely informing his staff about the weight-loss program and the new rules for Ranger through this memo. He also wanted to make it clear that it was a group effort. After informing, instructing, and persuading his readers to help, Bush signed off his memo saying “We Need Your Help-All hands, please help.”

President Bush with Ranger in 1991. 

Image courtesy George Bush Presidential Library and Museum.

Use The GRM Framework To Write To Anyone

Presidential correspondence like this memo shows us how our personality and authority can shine through in our writing, no matter what the subject. If you thought writing a professional memo with weight loss plans for a dog was challenging enough, you should know this: Bush Sr. also wrote a letter to a puppy in his typical Presidential style in which he described Ranger’s glorious life and tragic death. Don’t believe me? Read it here.

Tanvi Khemani is Manager, Curriculum, at Harappa Education. She is a postgraduate in Media and Cultural Studies from Tata Institute of Social Sciences, and enjoys eating street side chaat and writing fiction.

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