Don’t suck at instant messaging

In my company instant messaging dominates. It’s a powerful communication tool but also dangerous if you suck at it. It’s dangerous because when you IM me, you’re interrupting my workflow. If you do it well (and for the right reasons) I’m glad you wrote to me. If you do it badly or for the wrong reasons, I resent the disruption and wonder if I hired the wrong person.

You’re under the microscope whenever you send an instant message. Fortunately, it’s easy to rock IM. Below are a checklist and 11 real examples from my message flow.

instant messaging is not just for kids1. Begin with the general context  – I’m not a mind reader and don’t know what you were thinking about 30 seconds before writing to me! For example:

BAD:

“Eric, do you have a target date in mind for applications?”

GOOD:

“Eric, for that scholarship program we discussed yesterday – do you have a target date in mind for applications?”

2. Include a link to whatever you are referring to. Do it every time you want me to look at a webpage – even if you think I clearly have the page open and just need to refresh it. Do it every time. For example:

OK:

“fixed”

GREAT:

“http://justjobs.com/academy/dont-suck-at-e-mail/ -> fixed”

3. Use a real live example. If a picture is worth 1,000 words, give me a picture! Or screenshot. For example:

BAD:

“should I just include the title of the interviewee or also a little description, like when you say Administrative Supervisor for the RN interview?”

GOOD:

“http://careerconfessions.ning.com/forum/topics/certified-nursing-assistant -> how does the title look to you? should I add ‘- Administrative Supervisor’ at the end?”

4. Copy and paste an important conversation to other people or other places. If we talked about something that involves other people and they need to know, e-mail them a copy of our conversation. If our conversation related to an issue documented on a wiki, forum or project management system, copy and paste into that location. Or, if it’s something entirely undocumented that needs to go on the record, get it done!

5. Assume I never saw your IM, if you didn’t get a response. Try again or try e-mail.

6. Don’t stream out your words in little chunks and don’t wait for me to write back with “Hi” before you give me any information. If you need me to be there waiting and hanging on your words, you look inefficient and inconsiderate. For example:

BAD:

“hey Eric” (waits for me to respond)
“regarding that nursing article” (now starts writing again)
“do you think I should accept it as is?” (and starts writing again before I can respond…)

GOOD:

“Eric, regarding that nursing article do you think I should accept it as is?”

7. Use IM for time sensitive communication and/or know the preferences of your coworkers. Be extra judicious sending IM outside standard work hours. If you send me an IM at 9 PM, I expect it to be an emergency (unless I’m waiting for an update on something I’ve asked you for).

8. Turn on archiving and don’t ask me the same question twice. Look up the answer in your logs if you can’t remember. If your instant messaging program doesn’t have a searchable log, use pidgin instead.

9. Summarize at the end of an involved conversation. For example:

OK:

“got it, thanks, talk to you later”

GREAT:

“So to summarize Eric,  you want to order all the new hardware this quarter with the exception of the two Xeon chips, right?”

10. Copy and paste the question you are answering (or the comment you are responding to). If more than one question has been asked or the question was asked some time ago in the conversation, don’t make me guess what you’re answering. For example:

OK:

“put ‘<PRE>’ before the code and ‘</PRE>’ after it

GREAT:

“how do you format the code when you Post on BaseCamp? -> put ‘<PRE>’ before the code and ‘</PRE>’ after it”

Bonus: Ask questions that can be answered with a yes or no. Frame your questions so you’ll understand my answer if I respond with one or two words. I might be writing back to you from my phone, so make it easy for me to answer. For example:

BAD:  

“Is it okay if i give her Horacio’s interview or do you prefer to publish it on ezine?”

GOOD:

“Is it okay if i give Horacio’s interview to Gaby?”

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16 comments…

  • avatar

    contramundum July 5, 2013, 6:21 am

    Very nice article. In my experiences as a high school graduate, it seems that social media is viewed in a very negative light by instructors especially. My teachers always seemed to look down upon texting as well as any form of communication that didn’t include direct verbal exchange or, of course, writing. However, at this point in time, social interaction via social networking i.e. IMs is becoming a ubiquitous occurrence.

    Proper etiquette is necessary for verbal communication, and should also be necessary for non-verbal communication as well, especially if it will impact the state of one’s employment. So before a teacher reprimands you for texting, kindly explain to her that you are simply honing your communication skills in preparation for your future techno-centric career.

    Reply
  • avatar

    Carmen Ross December 28, 2012, 6:57 am

    Eric did a great job in outlining instant messaging and emailing etiquette. People overestimate the amount of information that is actually conveyed to the person they’re communicating with. When corresponding with your employer, communicating clearly and directly is so important. Communicating effectively could mean the difference between moving up in position at your job or remaining stagnant in the same place.

    Reply
  • avatar

    JCompton September 1, 2012, 2:09 am

    It’s great that this article focuses on even the smaller forms of communication between a boss and an employee; instant messaging, when utilized properly, can speed up a process that could have taken longer through phone calls or face-to-face meetings. It really emphasizes that proper speaking skills do indeed transfer into instant messaging and that typing clearly and efficiently can make or break you.

    Reply
  • avatar

    zachsch August 30, 2012, 3:40 pm

    I worked in a corporate engineering office this summer, and many of these IM tips are spot on.

    IM is a great way to send a quick link to a coworker, who can then bookmark it for future use.

    IMs are excellent for either time-sensitive information, or just a quick question. Sometimes it’s easier to see if the person if available to call or meet in person than walk halfway across the building to find out they’re in the middle of a meeting.
    Definitely use archiving. It will save you and your coworkers a lot of time.
    If you are archiving and all the IMs were understandable, you don’t necessarily need to “summarize” as this would often seem silly; if the conversation only lasted two minutes, for example (and the majority of IM conversations, at least that I dealt with, were succinct).

    Additionally, nearly all IM services have different status’ you can change yourself to, from “available,” to “away from my desk,” to “in a meeting.” Usually it is not a problem, but try to remember to keep this updated. Especially if you are in a meeting where you are sharing your screen over a server or on a projector, etc. You don’t want an IM popping up in the middle of your presentation. If it is a very important meeting, it might be safest just to log off IM for the duration of it.

    Reply
  • avatar

    Morgan Knight August 21, 2012, 3:54 pm

    While reading this article, I noticed that many of the IM’s I send to my friends via Facebook would “suck” as Eric would say. To be completely honest, I’ve probably broken every single rule he laid out in the article.

    However, I can see why it would be so easy to fall into the traps of sucking at IM, but that is where a conscious effort needs to be made to correct that, especially in the work environment. Personally, the two rules of IM that I consistently break are streaming my words in little chunks and asking questions that require more than a simple “yes” or “no” answer.

    Unfortunately, in doing both of these things, I confuse the person I’m chatting with and it always turns into a big mess. For example, when I chunk things into little streams of words, I usually don’t allow the person to respond before I send another little chunk. This leads to confusion in which questions they answered and which they have yet to get to. In addition, having questions that require in depth answers causes confusion as well.

    Eric’s article has definitely given me some insight into becoming a better Instant Messenger. In order to do well at messaging in the future in a workplace, it will all need to start with practice and becoming habitual in my everyday life.

    Reply
  • avatar

    Jonathan Valderrama August 13, 2012, 8:11 pm

    This was really interesting. I didn’t think that something so simple as instant messaging can affect the way you work. I’ve done some of the bad examples before and now i have to do better when i write to people.

    Reply
  • avatar

    James Noble July 27, 2012, 4:14 am

    I like the way Eric describes the situations. He sounds like
    a normal guy that just simply wants the job done! I think I could work well
    with him. Great information on interpersonal communications, well done!

    Reply
  • avatar

    Melissa Preston July 18, 2012, 4:11 pm

    This was helpful, I will be using it as a referances with my classes.

    Reply
  • avatar

    Danielle Goshen Mueller July 12, 2012, 10:51 pm

    I found that lesson #9 (Summarizing the conversation) to be very helpful. It can be so easy to disconnect while texting or sending instant messages that one might forget he or she is in a professional or business atmosphere. With text messaging and instant messaging being so popular in today’s society it is still important to keep etiquette. One thing an employee must keep in mind is that a person cannot always get back right away. With text messages society is taught that a response will happen within minutes and this is not always the case. Patients is something one must have, if a response is needed immidiately then a phone call would probably be better when seeking an answer.

    Reply
  • avatar

    Nikki Orlosky July 5, 2012, 5:39 pm

    This is so important and a great source of information. I watch adolescents text each other with one or two words at a time and the conversation goes back and fourth for hours. I try to teach my daughter that to be successful in text messaging, get to the point! People cannot read minds and texting can be a waste of time and energy, not to mention the constant interruptions that it causes on both ends. I call it fishing because when someone is not direct in a text message, they seem lost and are looking for someone to give them the answer without having to show weakness in their abilities to make decisions on their own.

    Reply
  • avatar

    Lady Aoi June 30, 2012, 7:21 am

    This is an insightful post. I have never had to use IM on the job. It has always been e-mail, phone calls or face-to-face. This wasn’t a personal preference, just company culture, no one used IM. As a result, I can really benefit from the pointers above. In school, I took a class in technical writing. In it I learned that appearing sloppy, inconsiderate, unorganized, or unprofessional in communications can be a death sentence. Its nice to have some basis now on appropriate professional IMs.

    Reply
  • avatar

    hunter March 5, 2012, 2:37 am

    I think this has great ideas which I hope I will be able to utilize in my messaging at college.  I am not currently working  and am a full time student. I have had experience in having messages misunderstood and following the above guidelines would often  prevent that from happening.

    Reply
  • avatar

    Cody January 25, 2012, 5:32 am

    When I think of Instant Messaging I think of talking in more of a personal state. Like not at work. I have never had to use instant messaging at work. if I ever would have to this blog really helps you if you want to send great explanatory messages. If I’m at home on Facebook or other instant messaging websites then i am no where near great spelling or grammar. It’s almost like text messaging. I use shortened words and things like “lol”. This blog is great for the workplace though!

    Reply
  • avatar

    Julnk1792 January 11, 2012, 7:26 am

    This blog is very helpful! I am further encouraged to send precise and informative messages to prevent miscommunication and/or get my boss irritated. Especially because in today’s generation, text messaging has become the norm form of communication. I feel that because texting enables teens to quickly communicate through short phrases, it allows them to use choppy lingos that are challenging for the receiver to understand. Teens impatiently send a text message assuming that the receiver is aware of everything and anything that he/she is talking about. This is an improper habit that needs to be changed before one begins to work in a professional setting. This blog helps to highlight that teens should practice texting precise and accurate information from a young age. Communication is vital in a workforce!

    Reply
  • avatar

    Jurgen July 30, 2011, 5:52 pm

    Great tips. IM is such a productivity trap for me and found this blog on Google looking for some tips. Bookmarked.

    Reply
  • avatar

    Daniel July 27, 2011, 9:20 pm

    Nice article about IM conversations in the workplace, I loved it =)

    Personally, I got the habit of #10 (Copy and paste the question) from my good old IRC days (http://www.irchelp.org/irchelp/text/rfc1459.txt) – imagine a channel/chatroom with ~30 people talking, sometimes about two or three different topics… proper context and reference is a must.

    Reply

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In 1997, Eric Shannon launched the first job board for bilinguals who speak English/Spanish at LatPro.com. Eric still serves as CEO of LatPro Inc., developer of JustJobs.com. He lives in Boulder, CO with his wife and two girls.

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