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October 13, 2010


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Great topic, Lynn! I would add one thing: do not write anything in an IM that you would not want published on the front page of your company intranet! (ok, so that's a nod to the old newspaper headline adage). It's easy to forget that IM conversations can still be shared with others.

Business Writing Blog

Megan, thank you for the excellent tip. IM conversations are also subject to discovery in legal proceedings.



Thanks for bringing up IM, Lynn.

Since I only use IM with co-workers I know well (both in my department and not), I feel I can skip the formalities and get right to the question. But I would only use IM for a relatively straightforward question (Did you submit your report? Where's the xyz file located?) that only requires a succinct answer.

Another good use for IM is to see if someone is free for an ad-hoc meeting or phone call. On my IT team, a simple IM of "got a minute?" is preferred to interrupting someone in person or by phone.

With IM, I live by the Two Sentence Rule. If I'm initiating the conversation and my question stretches beyond two sentences, then I should send an email instead. If my reply goes beyond two sentences, I stop writing and pick up the phone.

Thanks again for addressing this topic, Lynn!


My company uses IM for a great deal (~50%) of communication since we're spread over many offices across the continent.

One thing I make a policy of: never say anything about another person that you wouldn't say to that person's face - because it's too easy to click the wrong link and end up saying something to THEM instead of the person you intended. (One man I knew was selecting models, and intended to comment to his boss that one model just wasn't right for the job. He accidentally clicked on her name. Awkward!)

Business Writing Blog

JJ, thank you so much for taking the time to list your helpful ideas. The two-sentence rule is brillant!


Business Writing Blog

Penguinlady, thank you for your wise reminder. Your advice makes sense for any kind of writing.



Great topic. I was glad you mentioned greeting the person first. Even though our IMs are company only, it still feels like barging in if a person jumps in with a question. A greeting gives you a chance to say you can't talk right then. "Got a minute?" or even "Lynn?" goes a long way. That blinking box at the bottom of the screen is already demanding attention above all else. When I am greeted, I feel like I can say I am in the middle of something and can't talk for 15 minutes. Or that I'll call them when I'm off a conference call.

I'd like to add a few suggestions.

Limit the number of IM conversations per day. If you start six IM conversations in one day with the same person, then you have demanded that person's attention for immediate action six times. Email might be more appropriate for some of those requests so the person can answer on their schedule.

If the IM conversation gets too long or complicated, switch over to the phone instead.

Be as careful with slang and idioms as you would in other business communications. I IMed a "ballpark price" to a colleague in France and we spent the next couple of minutes going back and forth since he didn't understand what that phrase meant.


Business Writing Blog

Anne, thank you for contributing your terrific ideas. I especially like your advice on "Got a minute?" or "Lynn?" I also like your guidance on limiting the number of daily IM conversations.

"Ballpark price"--I love it. Thanks for the reminder.


Peter Schreiner

We only use IM for company use so many of the formalities can, for the sake of expedience, be dismissed. Discretion is always advised however because you never really know who is seated at the other end.

I work close with the owner and many times you can find him seated next to me as we review a document together when an IM pops up. And, while everything in his business is his business there are times when some of the inconsequential matters are best handled without him ever knowing. So, it’s humorous (most times) when one of these matters comes to his focus over my IM and he remarks, "Huh, I'll answer that one." His reply then closed by adding his name.

Business Writing Blog

Peter, thank you for that valuable example of different eyes seeing the IM. Great advice!



IM is really the equivalent of walking over to someone's desk, except that you can't tell if the IM recipient is busy when you type away. I always start an IM with "Got a minute? or "Quick question?"

Our company uses an IM system with presence features that color-code the IM desktop icon by activity. Red means "in a meeting," for example, and yellow means "not at my desk." There's even a "do not disturb" setting. This system saves a lot of time and trouble.

Business Writing Blog

Thanks for commenting, Diane. "Quick question?" is an excellent opener--as long as the question IS quick, of course.

I like the efficient color-coded icon.



Great tips, Lynn. Thank you for sharing.

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