STOP SHOUTING AT ME!!! – The importance of restraint in writing

In a noisy marketplace the temptation to emphasise is deafening. But here’s why you need to hold back.

For those who know me personally, you’ll be aware that I’m a horrible over-user of the exclamation mark in private communications. ‘Oh my God!!! That’s amazzzzing!!!’ Yup, that’s me when I’m not being a professional writer.

When I write like that, what I’m trying to communicate is how hugely excited I am about what I’ve just heard, because I care (so much!). It’s my way to say ‘I’m happy for you friend’. In 2006, a study into the use of exclamation marks in electronic communications found that their use actually acted as a ‘marker of friendliness’. So the more exclamations the more I care? Right?

The thing is, in personal communications I can get away with it. My friends and family know how enthusiastic I am, particularly about beautiful things happening to the people I love: Baby announcements beware – there will be excessive punctuative shouting! But when it comes to communicating with customers, who don’t know you personally, being overly enthusiastic with punctuation can have a very different effect.

Why exclamation use is bad for business

Over-use of exclamations is one of the most common writing faux pas I experience in editing for businesses, particularly in blog copy. But why is it so bad?

The purpose of an exclamation mark is to denote surprise, enthusiasm or shock. This means that they should be used for rare moments (because no-one is shocked by the norm). Over-using exclamations dilutes their impact. If you use them all the time, your customers won’t be able to tell when you really mean it. So when the time comes and you have something truly shocking to say, it will look just like any other message you’ve ever communicated.

Guess who is a big fan of exclamations? Probably the biggest, greatest fan there ever was of exclamations? You guessed it. If Donald Trump’s tweets don’t end in an exclamation, chances are he didn’t write them. Regardless of your politics, this is a fine example of the overuse of the exclamation, which lessens the impact of his otherwise significant announcements. The big figures are the giveaway, not the punctuation.

Donald Trump tweets all end with exclamations

Trump could do with taking a note of the Guardian and Observer style guide, which cheekily states:

Exclamation marks - 'Use sparingly!' (As Scott Fitzgerald said, it is like laughing at your own jokes)

You might end up in the trash

Let’s think about email titles for a minute. When you’re scanning through your emails and you’re confronted with a heading that says something along the lines of ‘OMG!!! This is epic!!!’ does it make you stop? Possibly:  it’s in your face, so it’s more likely to halt you in your tracks. But how does it make you feel about that content or the business it’s coming from?

Mailchimp research has shown that “too many punctuation marks can make your email look like spam, especially if you use a lot of special characters”. Consequently, your email might not even make it in front of your target market.

Learn Inbound, a leading marketing training company, made an interesting observation in their own research into the use of exclamation marks in subject lines. They found that in promotional newsletters, subject lines that used exclamations had a lower open rate, and the more exclamations, the lower the open rate. Not surprising on its own.

But in automated email flows, where the email is part of a nurture campaign relevant to them, subject lines with exclamations were opened more. Ostensibly, it’s ok to talk to your loyal customers in a more familial tone, but the way you talk to prospective customer needs a different approach. Shouting out ‘I’M FRIENDLY!!’ isn’t going to do the job.  

What it might do is make you question its authenticity.  Like receiving an email from someone you don’t know that starts ‘Oh hi Mike!’, it makes you think ‘Who are you, and why are you being so familiar?’

Worse still, because the use of exclamation marks cries ‘please like me’, their overuse screams desperation. Let’s have some dignity, people.

A fine line between friendly and aggressive

It’s not just exclamation marks you should look out for.  The use of UPPERCASE or bold are equally used to add emphasis and with equally desperate effects. But they can also come across as demanding or aggressive, even. Especially when used together.  Take a look at this example:

I’m really friendly. vs. I’M REALLY FRIENDLY!!!!

The capital letters and exclamations have turned what was a soft phrase into an assault on our eyeballs.

We recently posted a quote on our Facebook page from American Author John Jantsch, which said: ‘Your impact is measured not by what you do, but by what happens to other people when you do it.’ Applying this logic here, the impact of your content isn’t measured by how many exclamations you use, but by how it makes your customers feel, think and act.

There is a better way

So if you shouldn’t use exclamations, bold or uppercase in your communications (unless strictly appropriate), what can you use to grab attention? Take a look at this headline from The Atlantic via Medium:

'An Alarming Discovery in Artronaut's Bloodstream' reads the title of an article from the Atlantic

No shouty formatting required. It draws the reader in by planting a question in their mind ‘What was the alarming discovery?’ They want to know more. I certainly did. (No spoilers, you’ll have to read the article to find out.)

Using clever, enigmatic or helpful language rather than crude exclamative formatting is a much more sophisticated approach to attraction, telling your customers that you are sophisticated and professional too. Because after all, we are what we write.

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