Scott Hanselman

Reply To All Snowball - Know When To Escalate Communication

June 28, 2007 Comment on this post [14] Posted in Musings
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I was chatting on IM to Jeff today and we were going back and forth and back and forth and it became ridiculous. Just pick up the phone.

IM is great, truly. I get to stay connected to all sorts of folks that I either wouldn't be able to call as often, or where a one-line "what's up" email would be a burden to them or a todo.

I find the little piece of "blue toast" that pops up to be very comforting in fact - "Ah, Carl's still out there. How nice."

However, I think it's important to Know When To Escalate the conversation to the Next Level, that might look like one of the following:

  • IM to Phone
  • Phone to Lunch (in Person)
  • Email to In Person
  • In the Cube to In a Meeting Room

How do you know when to take it to the Next Level?

  • When an email thread goes by that is a "Reply to All Snowball," where folks not only continue to Reply to All, but they also CC: more and more people with each Reply to's time to escalate the communication.
  • When your hands start to hurt while typing an Instant's time to escalate the communication.
  • When you actually get angry that you can't get your thoughts into an mail as fast as you can's time to escalate the communication.
  • When you can't say something nice in IM or email, escalate the communication and say it in person, or just let it go.
  • When you've written an email so long that the scrollbar appears, it's time to escalate the communication. Seriously, no one is going to read that.

What kind of communications problems do you have?

About Scott

Scott Hanselman is a former professor, former Chief Architect in finance, now speaker, consultant, father, diabetic, and Microsoft employee. He is a failed stand-up comic, a cornrower, and a book author.

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June 28, 2007 5:19
Definitely good advice for anybody that does any amount of text based communication.

A large number of the people that I know are heavy users of SMS. Personally, I don't even bother. It's not the cost, it's just that lots of people insist on having conversations using T9, and I'd just rather talk to them. I'm continually amazed at how many words can be crammed into 160 characters.

I generally escalate to a phone call any time an SMS is anything more than "the movie is at 7", or if it asks for a response. This greatly annoys the SMS crowd, but I just don't see the value in taking 5 minutes to have a 30 second conversation.
June 28, 2007 5:31
i love it -- as i was reading your list for some reason i started reading in the "you know you're a redneck..." inner voice...
June 28, 2007 5:33
I find online chatting during work distracting. In fact, I have all kinds of notifications turned off, even Outlook's because my company sends too many emails. The toaster popup became annoying.
It's a lot quicker to use the phone instead of back and forth typing.
June 28, 2007 5:44
I don't have much of a choice but email with some phone contact. My team is global and located in (from left to right) Vancouver, Calgary, Houston, London Canada, London England and Bangalore. IM doesn't really work because half the team isn't online when the other half is.
June 28, 2007 7:12
So glad you brought this up, Scott. Many of us don't escalate when we should.

Another type of escalation I'd like to see is IM to email, when the content is valuable enough that you don't want it to get lost; or if you feel like it is of future-reference quality. Even though most IM has "transcript" or "history" features, if you're texting something instructions to someone on how to do something non-trivial; or perhaps the terms and conditions you should be including with your product, etc.; it should be escalated to email instead of trying to copy and paste it into your IM window.
June 28, 2007 7:27
I use the 20 minute rule, where I park it for 20 minutes in my saved drafts if I'm really pissed. Then I come back and read it again, and many times end up talking to the person or group rather than sending it (or don't send it at all).

Also, another thing that gets me with email is when people type these 3-inch long paragraphs. Give your reader a break already. Whitespace lets people breathe!

It also tones down your message, which is especially helpful if you're building a case for an argument. Whitespace gives people time to think about your message. It also highlights the first few words of each smaller paragraph, which makes your message more effective.

Each point that's buried 3 or 4 sentences into a paragraph is often skimmed over completely.
June 28, 2007 7:34
I wish I had a nickel for every time an email thread turned into a pseudo-conference-IM-chat with a whole bunch of people (with all of Development on the CC: line via a distribution list). You step away from it for 30 seconds and it's washed over you like a wave and you're out. Then it can splinter, and just grow into this huge monster of a beast that consumes everything in it's path. Ugly!

I'd be rich.
June 28, 2007 17:26
IM is a great business tool, but I wish I could set my availability message per user (or better yet, a named group of users). There are a handful of people who I could trust to bother me anytime. Others I can handle during certain windows throughout the day. Unfortunately, I'm either "available" or "busy" or invisible to everyone.
June 28, 2007 17:58
The main problem I find with some people that I IM with (and I may be just as guilty) is that they assumptions. I find people do this in face to face conversations as well, but it's negative impact is less in that medium.

I had a friend yesterday who I asked a simple question, "Where would you rank yourself on .NET on a scale of 1-10?" I also told him I would explain why I asked as soon as he answered. Instead of answering he made an assumption of what I was going to do with that data and went on about how he'd rather not play that game. Ultimately we spent 10 minutes going down a rabbit trail that should never have existed and only did because he made an assumption about my intentions.

As readers in IM/Chat we cannot make as many assumptions about the intent of the IM message. As writers we have to be more clear and thorough given the lack of verbal cues and context. Conversation in IM has to be more deliberate.
June 28, 2007 18:16
Ever since I read the super-excellent blog post entitled the tyranny of e-mail, I've become a convert to nipping e-mail conversations in the bud right quick. Once I see a conversation with co-workers lasting any period of time, I try to grab everyone up for a 5-10 minute meeting to see if we can resolve it. If we can't, bigger meeting but whatever - that's up to man-months of impossibly long e-mails that won't be flying around.
I used instant messengers back when I was in college and never quite saw the point in them (as with texting now). No more immediate than e-mail with the added bonus of somehow feeling even more instantly disposable? Why am I sending this in the first place?
Then again, I like to take my phone off the hook and turn off Outlook when I'm trying to develop because it takes so very little to knock me out of flow.
June 28, 2007 20:40
I'll actually throw out a disagreement with the last point about "an email so long a scrollbar appears." Maybe that's because I'm a perpetrator of some of those long-winded beasts, but I might argue that particular rule only applies to ultra-non-technical stuff. If I have to do any level of documented knowledge transfer, ask a question that involves a stack trace or other contextual information, do anything that involves a code snippet, or provide any nature of status report that's beyond a three-bullet-list, there's bound to be a scroll bar.

And there's no real way around that. You can't "recite the log messages" to someone over the phone and have that be effective. How many times have you said the words, "Can you send me the stack trace?" Why? Because that's not really something you can communicate verbally.

Maybe it's that most of my communications revolve around technical topics. I just don't think the "scrollbar rule" really applies. I think you can mitigate the email length issue by learning how to write and organize your thoughts properly. Put a summary at the top so people don't have to read the whole thing to get the basic idea about what you're saying, then put context later. Sort of the way they teach newspaper journalists to write - get the point across and add detail as you go, so if your article has to lose the last two paragraphs due to space constraints, it's fairly easy to rip them out and not lose the meaning of the story.
June 28, 2007 20:40
(And look - my comment is the longest one in the list. Maybe you can infer something from that.)
July 01, 2007 18:36
It's also a matter of serial vs. parallel communication:
July 03, 2007 12:09
I agree that email should be short, sharp and message focused. The point of the email should be to deliver a message, therefore, if the content is big it should be in an attachment and the user determines if it is of use to them. If you are looking for quick feedback from one person go with IM. Feedback from a group of people - stick with IM unless the concept to difficult to explain without arm waving and the use of a whiteboard.

I always wonder why folks get upset when I have not read the email they sent thirty minutes earlier. The stock response is to say “I drive my day. My email does not drive my day.”

Top tip: turn off the email client during the working day and only check email at two or three defined slots in the day.

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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed herein are my own personal opinions and do not represent my employer's view in any way.