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Stop yelling at your readers! There’s a time and a place for exclamation marks

Yellow road warning signTo the untrained eye, punctuation might not seem to have a much of an impact on a piece of writing. Of course, we all know the perils of a misplaced apostrophe or a sentence that’s been comma spliced to death. They’re silly mistakes that can make brands look careless and uneducated.

But even when you’re following the rules, it’s surprisingly easy for overzealous punctuation to have a negative effect on your content.

Are you getting (over)excited?

Take the not-so-humble exclamation mark. Used to denote excitement, shock, glee or any other emotion that might make you exclaim, the poor exclamation mark is being increasingly shunned. In recent years, its use in marketing or communications content has been discouraged. Its image has been tarnished by overuse and now many see it as cheesy or a lazy way to inject excitement into underwhelming writing.

Exclamation marks in your content and, for some brave companies, into the brand name itself, are a risky move. It can go either way; showing your company as a fun organization that doesn’t take itself too seriously or risking a negative association in potential clients’ minds between a goofy, silly name and, possibly, a silly company. E! entertainment is a brand that’s made quirky punctuation work for them. Aimed at a younger audience and bringing viewers pop-culture news as it breaks, the exclamation in their name captures the slightly frantic urgency of their reporting. Everything is breaking! or exclusive! as their audience demands it should be.

Meanwhile, when your personal reputation is on the line, an exclamation mark next to your own name is a dangerous choice. Jeb Bush, who made a failed bid for the Republican presidential candidacy in 2016, has gone by ‘Jeb!’ in every political campaign of his since 1994. Supposed to inject a bit of fun into the dull world of politics, it instead came across as false excitement and forced enthusiasm.

Here’s the rub

The problem with exclamation marks is that they can come across as ‘salesy’. People shouldn’t have to be instructed to get excited about a brand or event.  Picture an excitable infomercial, where a manically grinning presenter shouts ‘boy, do we have a deal for you!’ into the camera. I’ll admit, they’re a guilty pleasure of mine. But are they good examples of content marketing? No. Off-putting and annoying, this in-your-face tactic can reek of desperation and creative stagnation. Although your content should be worth shouting about, it’s best not to take this too literally.

What do the experts say?

Scott Fitzgerald once said that an exclamation mark “is like laughing at your own joke”. Instead of the sentence itself being exciting, the presence of the exclamation mark forces an emotion down the throat of your poor reader. Excitement should be invoked through careful word choices, lexically manipulating your reader until their enthusiasm builds to a crescendo of joy, surprise or amazement. You can’t substitute this by sticking a line and a dot at the end of an unimaginative sentence.

Although, let’s give the poor little punctuation mark a break. It’s not always a terrible addition to your copy. Saved for occasions when something is genuinely so unexpected, exciting or shocking that you actually want to shout it from the rooftops, it can show a level of enthusiasm that is endearing.  Like celebrating an award or expressing thanks. Otherwise, it’s wise to leave it out of your writing.

My take on this? Exclamation marks aren’t the root of all evil. But, be careful not to fall back on them out of laziness or creative frustration. Readers should be excited by your excellent copy, not your over-enthusiastic punctuation.

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