This is going to be the BEST blog piece EVER!!!!! Did that make you want to read on? My guess is probably not, or perhaps only those who know me and would be wondering why I seemed so desperate. This is exactly the point I wish to make. Capital letters and exclamation marks are not compelling. There are better ways to draw attention to your point.
Why do communicators use superlatives?
The frenzy and excitement (or stress) of Christmas is now far behind us and everyone is settling into a new routine. Some people start the year feeling a little lacklustre due to shorter days, cold, wet weather and January being such a slog. Unbridled fake shouty enthusiasm could be irritating and this is just as much a challenge in our written content. But it can be done, there’s just a right and wrong way to do it.
I’ll admit being a little too liberal with the use of an exclamation mark now and again – it’s an easy trap to fall into, especially for those of us with endless positivity coursing through our veins. However, overusing dramatic punctuation means that you won’t get the right message across and this is particularly a challenge for those of us working in marketing and comms. Adding an exclamation mark, some over-the-top adjectives or dropping in some superlatives won’t magically make what you’re saying compelling or important.
Before you start shouting about your brand and what you’re doing, here are five questions you should ask yourself first:
1. Is it important or exciting, really?
The exclamation mark has become the general signal of importance and we all dread that little red exclamation point next to an incoming email. But does it actually need your attention? Just as many people will simply ignore that email, so your clients, customers or prospects will do exactly the same with your content if you’re trying to make something more important than it is.
The same applies to trying to generate excitement. As Scott Fitzgerald once said, “An exclamation point is like laughing at your own jokes.” You may think you’re great but no one else will. Instead, you’ll put them off. If something really is exciting or important, you don’t need punctuation to convey that, words should suffice.
2. Is it the right time?
When approaching a serious issue, distributing your latest company financials or putting out a formal company statement breaking some bad news, you should refrain from using any sort of unnecessary punctuation, especially exclamation marks. This would undermine the power of what you’re showing or saying, and no one will take you seriously.
Also, bear in mind who’s speaking. Is this a statement from your company CEO to your stakeholders and customers, or a blog from an employee about a great company day out? Punctuation can completely change the voice and tone of a piece, and exclamation marks do not equal serious and credible. Not to name any names but a certain US President is quite a fan of the exclamation mark and I’ll let you make your own decisions about the extent of his credibility…
3. Is it the right place?
Social media is a punctuation minefield – and when it comes to an exclamation mark, be wary. You don’t want to accidentally start a potential debate when you’re talking about something great you’ve done. If you’re replying and engaging with customers or prospects online, you also don’t want them to get the wrong impression.
For LinkedIn, an exclamation point is generally seen as unprofessional but on Twitter and Instagram they can have their place. An exclamation mark here or there can inject a little bit of emotion and help your brand seem more human. Still, take heed. Does an exclamation mark generally match the style and tone of the rest of the feed? And what are you saying around that exclamation mark? Going back to my first point, you need to come across as genuine, conveying real shock or excitement. And remember, one exclamation mark is enough, overuse them and you’ll seem insincere.
As for capitals on social media – don’t even think about it. Proper nouns and beginnings of sentences only please. Nobody likes a shouter, especially when you’re shouting about yourself.
4. Are you being honest?
We’ve all seen numerous news announcements and press releases claiming to be ‘world-first’ or ‘most innovative’. But being honest, is this really the case? Do your research and digging before making a bold claim. These phrases are a huge turn off for the media, and even more so, if not wholly true.
It also won’t sit well with your customers. If everyone claims to be the first to do something then in the end no one will be believed. It’s a little bit like the boy who cried wolf.
If you aren’t the first, though, don’t worry, you can still talk about how you’re doing it better.
5. Are you saying anything at all?
Adjectives, as we are taught at primary school, are describing words, and they can really help build up a picture, but not always. Too much can dilute rather than strengthen what you’re trying to convey. Reflect on whether you do need multiple adjectives, if any at all. Moreover, while social media is no longer so restrictive with word limits, unnecessary words take up precious space. Better to stick to the point and keep it punchy.
Most importantly, with all that additional punctuation and superfluous content, you’re likely not giving away any of the information or details your customers or audience actually need. Take the beginning of this very blog – did you have any idea what it would be about? Absolutely not. Always have in mind what you’re actually trying to say.
Of course, if your answer is yes to the above then please do go ahead, add in that punctuation mark, multiple adjectives and superlatives (maybe even capitals) but hopefully this will help make you think before you write.
Years ago, I was watching a film on TV. It might have been Tom Cruise in War of the Worlds. Anyway, it doesn’t matter. For a while, my boyfriend of the time was trying unsuccessfully to attract my attention. Eventually, he said: “When you focus on something, you really do focus on it, don’t you?” I remember hearing the question, and think my answer was probably: ‘Yes.” Perhaps followed by: “Now go away and leave me alone, I’m watching the film.”
The first step towards writing without waffle is the ability to focus. To be able to write without waffle, you need to think without waffle.
If you’re the sort of person who doesn’t even notice interruptions when you’re concentrating, it’s likely you already have the right kind of laser focus. However, if not, you’ll have to work at it! Luckily, there are some simple steps that anyone can follow in order to hone their writing technique…
1. Before you start:
In order to clear your mind from distractions, you need to be relaxed. Do weekly yoga, treat yourself to a monthly massage, take regular holidays. You also need to create the right working space. For some people it’s a quiet room, while others prefer background noise such as the radio.
Once you’re in a relaxed state and happy with the environment, it’s worth spending some quality time thinking before you put pen to paper or finger to keyboard.
2. Know your objective:
Unless you’re writing purely for self-expression (such as a journal), first decide what your writing is supposed to achieve. (If you can’t think of a main point to achieve, then perhaps there’s no point doing it at all!)
For most marketing and PR purposes, you are writing to increase brand awareness, drive traffic to a website, grow network reach, and ultimately, to increase sales.
It’s worth remembering, though, that no piece of writing can hope to achieve more than one objective. In fact, sometimes, your objective can’t be achieved in writing at all; you might be better off producing a video, running a webinar, or hosting a face-to-face event instead. So keep your goal in mind, and tailor your format accordingly.
If you’ve decided that writing is the optimal communication channel, there’s still some preparation to do before you start. Depending on how your brain works, you might make a list of the points you intend to cover, or you might prefer to mind-map your ideas in a more visual format. Either way, keep all your proposed content focused on your objective. If in doubt, leave it out!
4. Get started:
Now – at last – you can start writing.
One technique is to start at the end. Write your call-to-action or conclusion, then fill in all the points leading up to it, and finally, write your introduction and heading. Perhaps top and tail it with a story, to hook the reader in. But that’s only the beginning. Next, you might go over your text two or three (or more) times.
Here are just a few of the things to check:
Include evidence to back up any claims, and sub-headings to help skim-readers and aid navigation. Replace any clichés with a more original turn of phrase. Change long words and sentences to shorter ones, to aid comprehension. Keep paragraphs short, with one idea in each. Read sections aloud, to ensure they flow smoothly. Proofread. Sleep on it. Tweak it some more the next day. Cut, cut and cut again, so it’s as succinct as possible.
Finally, do one last check that it meets your single, clear objective while still making sense.
Despite all your hard work, you’ll be lucky if people remember your main point – that’s another reason for you to be clear about what it is, and to express it to the best of your ability.
This advice is not just for brands. It will save us all time if everyone learns to write without waffle.
Only authors have the luxury of using language with abandon. Here’s what HG Wells wrote in War of the Worlds (1898):
“Yet across the gulf of space, minds that are to our minds as ours are to those beasts that perish, intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic, regarded this earth with envious eyes, and slowly and surely drew their plans against us.”
The ‘without waffle’ version loses all its poetry:
“Aliens are planning how to take over our planet.”
However, when it comes to getting the point across , I know which version I’d remember!
Jackie Barrie writes without waffle for websites, blogs, newsletters, brochures, leaflets and speeches – any marketing communications to help your company make more money. She is the author of ‘The Little Fish Guide to DIY Marketing’ and ‘The Little Fish Guide to Networking’.
Find out more at www.comms-plus.co.uk
Follow Jackie on Twitter @jackiebarrie
Receive thought pieces from our leadership team, views on the news, tool of the month and light relief for comms folk