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Last active February 21, 2023 10:52
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Messaging on Slack — some pitfalls

These days a lot of communication in organizations takes place on Slack. Because it's such an intuitive tool, it's easy to forget that, like any other communication medium, Slack has its own set of (often implicit) rules.

In fact, even with the best intentions, it's surprisingly easy to cause offense with an innocuous-seeming Slack message. So before you hit send, consider the following:

  • Take the size of the forum into account

    If you're sending a message to a channel with 50 participants, you're addressing a crowd. True, the very same channel may have been a place for unguarded, unfiltered communication years ago, when the organization was smaller. But as the channel grew, the environment changed - you're now in an large conference room, not a small, intimate team room.

    In other words, a message to #dev or #general is an announcement or public statement. So put as much care and attention into the message as you would with any kind of announcement to a large group of people.

  • Imagine how your message will be read

    If you're not making it 120% clear what you're trying to achieve with a message, someone will misunderstand your words. People will take a guess at your intentions and they won't usually pick the most charitable interpretation. As the number of receivers of a message goes up, so does the likelihood of someone misinterpreting your message.

    As a reader, it's good practice to assume positive intent, but as a writer, you can't rely on this mechanism. So lead with intent, and don't leave your purpose up to the imagination of the reader. Say explicitly what you want to say (you want to gather feedback about XYZ) and also mention what it is you don't intend to say (you don't want to criticize any individuals who've contributed to XYZ).

  • Avoid the Big Wall of Problems

    The Big Wall of Problems, an itemized list of issues, looks like a natural way to create the record of an investigation — except that when posted in a public channel it isn't typically perceived as a neutral factual statement. All too easily people see a list of bullet points as an accusation, a silent indictment of colleagues who previously worked on the topic. The Big Wall of Problems comes across as excessively negative and makes people feel bad.

    How can you avoid this perception, which jeopardizes cooperation, while also not giving up on the ability to address the fact that something isn't working well? It takes care to craft a message that conveys that there's an issue without risking to offend people. Reduce the list to the essential elements (did you really need those 10 items?). Tie the list back to your intent (why are you listing those items in the first place). Sometimes a synchronous call is the better alternative when a topic is controversial.

  • Adapt your language

    An engineer's direct style of communication - no frills, straight to the point - works well in many contexts but reaches it limits in public slack messages. It can feel pushy or devoid of empathy.

    So use softeners to cancel the implication of aggressiveness. "Out of curiosity, have you considered" sounds like a cliche but it works. Try couching your message in terms of questions rather than statements coming from a place of knowledge (even if you do know your stuff, the community as a whole probably knows it better). Curiosity is key here. Starting a discussion when already having made up your mind means that you lose out on opportunities to learn; and it makes it harder for others to accept your message, because the communication feels to them like a one-way street.

    And yes, emojis go a long way towards making your message friendlier, making it easier for people to accept your meaning at face value without distracting negative reactions.

  • Put in the effort

    If you want to have an impact in your organization, fine-tuning the messaging is crucial. Yes, this is very hard, in some cases harder than the actual technical work you're doing - but without taking great care with the message, you won't be effective.

    So write a first draft of the message, go for lunch and then edit it again, cutting what's not essential or distracting. Let someone review your writing. Or better yet, co-create the message with someone else in a pairing session. The partner is helpful because their blind spots won't be the same as yours. Messaging will be more likely to be effective as a result.

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