Instant Messaging (IM) is a great tool for communicators. It’s quick, it’s direct, it’s interactive. You get answers fast, and you get things done swiftly. But like any tool, it has its limitations. Here are a few thoughts on how to get the most out of IM:
1. Don’t IM someone you don’t already know – it’s too direct and too invasive, so you won’t get the result you want. Best to start with a call or via email, if you can’t meet in person.
2. Check the person’s presence status – you wouldn’t barge into a meeting – don’t barge onto someone’s computer if they’re obviously engaged.
3. Update your own presence status – to prevent people contacting you at inappropriate times. If you say you are ‘Available’, people will expect a prompt response.
4. Don’t have a stupid screen name – ‘ivorbiggun’ might seem fun for personal IM, but for business purposes, first name and last name are more helpful. And lose that comedy picture too. Some people use IM clients like Adium to manage separate identities if their personal IM life is a bit fruity.
5. Start by saying ‘Hi’ – you do with all other forms of conversation, so you should with IM. In fact, it’s more important since it gives your recipient time to let you know whether they’re listening or have time for your query.
6. Write clearly – IM is open to misinterpretation, so be as clear as you can when asking for information, feeding back or delegating a task.
7. Write quickly – it’s really boring looking at the speech bubble, so turn round your responses quickly.
8. Write little – don’t spend more than 15-30 secs on your response. If you have a lot of info to share, write an email. Better to drip-feed small bits than dollop a whole bunch into the chat window for the other person to digest.
9. Don’t talk out of turn – it gets confusing to have two conversations in parallel with the same person. Just park questions and come back to them.
10. Don’t chat for long – if you have several things to discuss, use the phone. IM can be a real time-sink if used incorrectly like this.
11. Don’t use the conference facility – it rarely leads to a productive conversation with everyone participating equally. Again, (video)conference calls and meetings are better vehicles of these discussions.
12. Send files – most IM clients have the ability to send files. There are some security issues around this, but for most documents, say a logo, it’s much faster to transmit a file via IM than email, and it stops the inbox overload.
13. Turn the sounds off or down – if you’ve ever sat next to someone who IMs with the sound up, you’ll know why. Woop, woop woop.
14. DON’T SHOUT – unless you intend to.
15. Keep calm – if the discussion gets heated, then take time out. It’s easy to be harsher than intended via IM, and that goes for both parties.
16. Keep it clean – many IM systems are now archived, some by law, so treat it like any other form of communications channel. Because IM is intimate and immediate, it’s easy to become informal. Don’t.
17. Don’t IM with more than three people simultaneously – they’ll be waiting for your response, which could become confused. And besides, it’s a bit impolite isn’t it?