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Tips for Efficient Instant Messaging at Work

I was leading a business writing program yesterday, when someone asked me to cover instant messaging (IM). Of course, I said the principles we were discussing in class applied to all types of business writing.

Yet IM at work is a unique form of communication–instant and fleeting like nothing else. What makes it efficient?

As someone who rarely uses IM at work, I will offer a few common-sense ideas. But then it's your turn–please. If you use IM efficiently on the job, will you please add your wisdom? 

Here are my suggestions:

  1. Greet the other person briefly at the start of the IM conversation. Don't do the equivalent of barging in with a business question without saying hello. Be courteous.
  2. Wait for a response to each of your comments before adding more. Otherwise, you won't be sure which comment the other person is addressing.
  3. Do your best to use correct grammar, punctuation, and spelling. Mistakes will happen, of course, but don't make them knowingly. They get in the way of quick understanding.
  4. Use the word "we" cautiously or avoid it. It may refer to you and your team, or you and the other person. Instead write "our team" or "you and I."
  5. Avoid passive verbs such as "should be downloaded." Passives don't make it clear who should do the action. Instead use "Download," "I have downloaded," or "Your IT administrator will download."
  6. In IM exchanges with customers, when you use boilerplate text (for example, to respond to common customer questions), edit the boilerplate so it suits the situation. For example, if you have just told the customer "I will be glad to help," cut the "I will be glad to help" statement from the next boilerplate response. Otherwise, it will be obvious that you are pasting in rote responses.
  7. As with other business messages, avoid humor unless you are certain the other person will understand and enjoy it.
  8. Avoid sarcasm. People cannot distinguish between seriousness and sarcasm in those plain, flat words on the screen.
  9. End the conversation with an official sign-off, for example: "I am signing off now." That way, the other person will know that you believe the exchange is complete, and you won't have a bunch of empty chatter winding down the conversation. But wait a few moments to see whether the other person acknowledges your sign-off or instead says, "Wait–there's more!"

Do you agree with my suggestions? What have I missed? What makes instant messaging efficient for you?

Syntax Training

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By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English.

13 comments on “Tips for Efficient Instant Messaging at Work”

  • 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.

  • 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!)

  • 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.


  • 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.


  • 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.

  • 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.

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