Don’t suck at instant messaging

[I]n 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:




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

3. Use a real-life 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?”


“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:


“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.

For comprehensive advice on the entire job search process, read our complete guide to landing a job at a great company or visit our career advice hub.

< previous  work-smart  next >



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

  • Thank God someone’s finally saying something about messaging! I think it’s really important to know what you’re doing when your Instant Messaging, because if you don’t, it actually wastes a lot of time. This is something I had to learn the hard way. Never having seen an article like this before, I used to reference something people said three months prior, answering without reiterating the question! People got very confused. For example, if a few months back my coworker mentioned that we needed to restock on bread and olives, I would send something like, ‘Hey, when do you want to restock?’ According to this article, I should have phrased it differently. “Hi there, you mentioned a couple months back that you wanted to restock on bread an olives sooner rather than later. When would you like to do that?”
    This is a great article that has definitely given me a lot to think about!

  • This was super helpful-I always found myself sweating over sending simple texts to my employers, thank you 🙂

  • I often times get extremely frustrated with texting and IM messaging because people do not write clearly, and at first I thought it was a generation problem, but now I am realizing people just do not care to be informative when instant messaging. I chose to read this article because when I read the title I immediately agreed and think people should not suck at instant messaging. Living in 2015, the way we communicate is vital and extremely important to everyone to have as a strong skill set. Communicating is not going to disappear no matter what profession.

    These tips were extremely helpful and reminds me of an experience I had. As a film major, often times I have to be in charge of networking for a production that includes getting actors, getting a cameraman, directors, editors, and a writer. For the most part, I had to supply most of these needs myself, but one person cannot do everything– filmmaking is not a one man band. So I am the producer in most cases for my own projects, which requires strong communication skills. It’s frustrating when other people do not respond, or do not even answer the question that was asked.

    Number 5 really stood out to me. Sometimes someone would say they sent an email, or text, or message, and I did not answer. Though there is no reason to point fingers and blame, if i did not respond, there is a good chance I simply did not receive the text. So it should never be assumed that I saw it if I did not respond, especially if it requires a response.

  • I agree with the above rules
    for instant messages. I was surprised to realize that I fall in the ‘good’ or
    ‘great’ category on most of them. I am rather verbose and detail
    oriented and find myself in the ‘bad’ category for the bonus objective of keeping
    messages to yes and no, or two word answers. I understand the negative light
    many people, especially many educators, have placed upon this form of
    communication. I feel that it is in two parts.

    The first being that the
    quality is poor and effort is minimal. Taking the time to write out your
    thoughts on paper or even email can give the recipient an insight to your
    character. The word choice and lack of ‘text speak’ lets them know you are
    potentially dedicated, insightful, intellectual, caring, and professional. Most
    people seem to have the negative associations with this communication for that
    reason and therefore if people were to be more respectful and professional in
    the language and usage of it more people would approve of it.

    The second issue is the loss
    of traditional means of communication. Even those that don’t take issue with
    the way the instant messages are formatted might not like it simply because it
    is a competitor to other forms of communication that they prefer, or have
    nostalgia for. I agree that texting and even emails need to be clean up with
    the language and format, but I really feel as though this reason is more
    important. The influx of instant messaging and other forms of technological
    communication is taking away physical writing communication and interaction as
    well as the personal touch.

    It is because of the two
    reasons above that I was startled this summer when I received a text from my
    boss. I had provided my phone number in my application but never before had it
    been utilized via talk or text. All our communication up to that point took
    place face to face at work and prior to that over the phone with a third party.

    So, I was shocked to see a
    text from my boss asking me if I could come in the following day after my other
    job’s shift ended. I responded in the affirmative but had to read it carefully
    first to make sure that none of my texting habits got included. It made me
    nervous and I actually felt as though I was getting judged based on what I
    wrote and how I wrote it. I am a teenager so most adults automatically think
    less of your communication skills and to have mine tested via text was hard.

    But luckily I knew from
    other activities some of the pitfalls in texting professionally. All of which
    were on this list.

  • Instant messaging has indeed become a predominant tool for urgent communication. It has taken the place of the telephone in some instances in getting someone’s attention without being intrusive or disruptive. In my previous employment as a student worker working the front desk for the academic advising department, I was required to use instant messaging to communicate with faculty members in their office. This article perfectly highlights the proper uses of instant messaging.

    One thing I found when sending instant messages in a job setting is that it must be straight-forward and clear. It must be to the point when grabbing someone’s attention while they’re busy, so that it may not interrupt their workflow. If, for example, one of the counselors is already busy going through paperwork, and one of their students arrives for their appointment. The proper way to get the counselor’s attention would be directly writing: “Mr. S, your 2 o’clock appointment is here to see you. Shall I have them come in to see you?” In that, you’re getting the person’s attention in full without being intrusive. It would also be wise as the front desk agent to notify the counselor from the computer without disrupting their work flow, or stepping away from your desk and risking confidential information being stolen from under your nose. This is one of the many benefits of instant messaging in the workforce.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

Skip to content