How many is too many for your brand?
Guys, the exclamation point problem is too rampant for me to solve in a quick blog post. To do it justice, I’d need to write a book on it. Let’s just agree: people are overusing the crap out of them. Is the internet to blame? Social media? Smartphones and text-speak? Blog posts with (ahem) clickbait headlines? Probably all of the above. Undeniably we’ve gone through a massive cultural shift from the days when F. Scott Fitzgerald, arguably one of the greatest American writers of all time, said we should banish them all… to now, when it somehow feels abrasive to end a professional email without tacking on a few, willy-nilly.
Is this a real issue or just a grammar rant?
It’s not an issue the way, say, climate change is an issue, but exclamation point overuse is causing actual communication problems. Over the last decade or so, exclamation points have evolved from indicating authentic emotion or a real emergency to lending a formulaic cordiality. As digital communication increases, people are acknowledging that tone can be hard to interpret. If I email, “See you later.” instead of “See you later!” would you doubt my excitement? If I text, “Thanks.” instead of “Thanks!!” would you worry I was being curt?
All this electronic communication is still brand spanking new when you consider how many years humans have been depending on our voices and facial expressions to convey tone, and punctuation is one way we’re trying to make up for that loss. Gretchen McCulloch, internet linguist at WIRED, conducted a Twitter poll to find out how many exclamation points her followers felt were necessary to convey “genuine enthusiasm.” The consensus from her 800 respondents was three. Three! Yep, that’s an issue.
OK, hold up – so how should we use exclamation points?
The simple answer would be to use exclamation points when English grammar dictates they are necessary. Of course, we all know English grammar can be extremely messy and somewhat subjective. The only time you really need one is when you’re using an interjection, you know, those fun little interruptor words that capture sudden emotion: Uh-oh! Ouch! Holy cow! E-gad! In most other instances (life-threatening emergencies excluded… and maybe don’t email anyway), you can just choose more precise language to clarify your tone. If you’re really stuck on whether or not you need an exclamation point, try this impeccable flow chart from HubSpot.
Still… that exclamation point pressure is fierce
It is! I’m just as guilty! There are many documented cases on the internet (like this one) of people suffering exclamation point anxiety. And to some extent, deciding whether or not you’re willing to embrace the exclamation point as an etiquette shift is something you’re going to have to work out for yourselves. But when it comes to your professional life – and especially your brand – you need to be more intentional. Think about:
Internal communication – For work emails, Skype convos, memos and the like, feel free to sprinkle in a few exclamation points if it feels right to you. But don’t go overboard (i.e. You don’t ever need to double up.) You don’t want to come off as overly eager, inappropriately familiar or just plain immature.
External communication – If you write external marketing materials, adhering to your brand voice is critical. Ad writing needs exclamation points for messages like, “Register now!” or “This month only!” But the same basic rule applies: try to use language first to create urgency and emotion. Don’t let punctuation be a crutch. (Plus, too many exclamation points make your brand sound like a used car salesman pretty fast.)
Consider a copy style guide
Worried you might get carried away? Protecting the integrity of your brand voice really is essential. One of the most effective ways to do this is to create a style guide specifically for your written content. This is an invaluable exercise for any brand but is especially useful when you have more than one person writing your copy. Possible sections to include are:
- Voice and tone guidelines
- Preferences on subjective grammar rules (like exclamation points)
- Industry or brand-specific terms and acronyms
- Any no-nos (words or phrases you can’t say in your space)
- Your company’s approved boilerplate copy
Phew! Glad we got that out of the way. It feels good to put all those overused exclamation points behind us, doesn’t it?? (Note: What’s with the double-question-mark as the new symbol of confusion? Or the ?! combo to show shock? Maybe I should get started on that book after all…)
Need help refining your brand tone? Feeling motivated to develop a style guide? We can help!
Check out these related blog posts: