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:


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


“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:




“ -> fixed”

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


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


“ -> 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:


“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…)


“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:


“got it, thanks, talk to you later”


“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:


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


“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:


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


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

Get the ebook! If you liked what you read here, and think you may want to refer back to this guide later, grab the Kindle version – we’re hoping you’ll thank us with a five-star review on Amazon if you found this material helpful. The ebook also includes our job search guide.

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About the author


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