What’s the Point?

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It's called an exclamation point. But are we using it as an explanation point? By Ellen Petry Leanse (Technology Strategist and Leadership Coach)

Today we discuss the exclamation point. You know: this thing: “ ! “

Like the word “just” – and if we haven’t talked about that before, take a moment to read why I mention it – it’s one of those things that can subtly undermine credibility and power. Yet the good news is: It’s an easy thing to fix.

It hit me as this weekend’s epic storm descended on SF. Pictures of waterlogged neighborhood gutters and closed freeway lanes, well, “flooded” my Facebook news feed. Glancing at the updates friends were sharing, I noticed a difference in the use of exclamation points between women and men.

Only a feeling. A count, I thought, would give a more accurate snapshot.

I have a fairly even mix of female and male Facebook friends. The stream I analyzed this morning spanned 30 posts from 12 male friends and 15 females (two female friends had shared multiple posts).

Some posts were quite current and some up to 12 hours old. Facebook’s news feed is another story.

I only looked at the top 30 posts. My count included posts as well as comments. It also covered comments from both friends and people I did not directly know.

From the 30 posts and related comments, 16 entries included at least one use of an exclamation point. A total of 23 sentences ended in at least one exclamation point. But several sentences ended in multiple exclamation points (like “This!!!!”).

The distribution looked like this.

NumberofExclamationPoints

 

 

 

Only women were likely to use exclamation points in multiple sentences within the same message. This tracks the percentage of sentences in a multi-sentence post or comment that ended with an exclamation point: None of the men in this morning’s sample set used multiple exclamation points.

PercentageofExclamationPoints

 

 

 

 

I went to my inbox. Opening a few emails mentally tallied differences between messages from men and women I correspond with fairly regularly. Even in my small sample I sensed a trend. Women were notably more likely to use exclamation points in subject lines, greetings (Hi Ellen!!!), and content – even in business correspondence – than were men. Notice that two women (two different people) used one or more exclamation points in ALL of the sentences they wrote. (NOTE: As I went back this afternoon for a reality check, I saw a post from a man about his young son’s costume in a school play. The first comment, from a man, included three sentences ending in two exclamation points each. But I saw that after this morning’s count.)

Email from women was more likely to end in “Thank you!” than email from men. Men were more likely to close with a “Thanks” or simply with their name. Or with nothing. The way women and men closed their messages was notably different.

Flipping back to Facebook, I looked for context. I saw a pretty big difference in the way men and women used exclamation points in posts and comments. Whereas a man might say “Congrats!” to a friend who shared good news, females’ comments were likely to exclaim more.

“That’s great!!,” one read. “You deserve it!!! I can’t wait to hear more!!!!” (The late-breaking costume-praising friend was a worthy exception.)

Women would also use exclamation points to share news. “It’s really pouring!! And the window shutters pounded all night!!! Drive safe, everyone, if you have to go to work today!!!!”

Compared to a pic captioned by, “Flooding on 280. Drive safe, all.” That’s from a guy.

I wonder what’s behind this difference. This symbol – ! – is called an “exclamation point,” but women seem to use it as an explanation point, punctuating opinions, observations and weigh-ins notably more frequently than men.

What are we exclaiming? Why do we feel we have to shout or scream or hype it up simply to say what we’re thinking?

There’s nothing wrong with a lively “ ! “ when we have something to exclaim. But “exclaim” hits me as the sort of occurrence that wouldn’t happen four times in a Facebook post.

This is anecdotal data and a non-scientific analysis. But still: Spot check your communication and see what you think.

If you’re regularly using exclamation points, try reading your words out loud, voicing the punctuation. Then re-read imagining periods at the end. Any difference? Did “Thank you” do the job as well as “Thank you!” or even “Thank you!!!”?

Did you need to exclaim to make your point?

I’m still working on this. These days I write things exactly as I normally would, and then I groom out any but the most essential exclamation points. “One per email” is the limit I suggest to clients and co-workers. I try to stick to that myself.

I’m also working on the “voiced” exclamation point. My personal experience is that too much exuberance can interfere with the credibility of a message. Slowing and toning down, I’ve noticed, can add to impact. I’m working on that. And it takes work.

Let’s work on it together. Save your exclamations for things worthy of the extra punctuation. Tone it down with a simple period unless you have something really big to say. And take a minute to read “’Just’ Say No” if you didn’t up above; the thinking reinforces what’s shared here.

Small changes to everyday actions can be easy when we look at the thinking behind them. And those changes can affect other, more important things in our life, relationships, work, and even the way we feel. When something truly great happens, share all of the exuberance the occasion deserves.

Until then: Speak, and write, with the simple clarity your thoughts deserve. Your message will ring true. Period.


About the guest blogger: Ellen Leanse (@chep2m) works at the crossroads of technology, positive psychology, and design thinking. An alum of early Apple, Google, and a several entrepreneurial ventures, she has worked with innovators around the world and always comes home to a simple, human truth: we are all part of something bigger. Her Stanford class on Innovation is among the school’s highest-rated Continuing Studies courses, and will soon be offered online. Follow Ellen on Twitter at @chep2m for updates.