If you want to sound like an immature, unprofessional idiot, fill your prose with exclamation points, emojis, superlatives, adverbs, and profanity. Today I’ll explain why people use these rhetorical techniques and how they undermine your meaning.
There are no absolute rules about business writing. You are welcome to use any of the elements I describe here. I do. But avoid leaning on them as a crutch instead of facing up to the need to communicate actual content, clearly. Treat the elements in the list below like cinnamon — a little can spice things up, but a lot just draws attention to lack of cooking skill.
I’ve included a chart at the end for easy reference.
Why you use them: You want to emphasize something, or show how excited you are.
We hit quota! This is the third month in a row! Congratulations, everybody!
Do not leave leftover guacamole on the counter! It attracts flies, mice, and vultures!
You really should hire this woman! She’s so talented in so many ways! We will never have an opportunity this good again!
How you sound: Like a hyperventilating auctioneer attempting to get attention on an active airport taxiway.
Your quota: Use at most one exclamation point per email. Don’t use more than one per 500 words of text.
Psychology behind them: People use exclamation points for emphasis, but the more you use, the more you tire out the reader. It’s better to make powerful points with short, pointed sentences that make you look intelligent, rather than manic.
Why you use them: They’re fun and express emotions efficiently.
We got an excellent review in the trade press
I was so grateful that you hit the deadline on this — very helpful.
How you sound: Like a thirteen-year-old girl at a Justin Bieber concert.
Your quota: Zero. Emojis don’t belong in business writing at all.
Psychology behind them: Emojis vastly increase your ability to express your emotional state. But while emotion has its place in business, these graphical expressions of emotion emphasize the emotion over the content. Serious businesspeople (especially anyone over 30) aren’t ready to accept these as a part of business discourse.
Why you use them: You want to show something is truly wonderful and unique.
This spectacular venue is the first of its kind and the most amazing location ever to open in Brooklyn.
Margot is the smartest, most experienced, cleverest coder on the planet.
How you sound: Like a cheerleader.
Your quota: One superlative per paragraph is plenty.
Psychology behind them: You’d like to emphasize how great something is. But like all expressions of enthusiasm, the more superlatives you use, the more you undermine your credibility. Press releases, especially, overuse superlatives to poor effect. Statistics work better than superlatives to make a point persuasively.
Why you use them: You want to intensify what you’re saying to make it sound more true.
This trend is deeply upsetting and promises to become vastly more troubling in the future.
I’m extremely concerned about your very challenging situation.
How you sound: Like a politician lying.
Your quota: No more than 5% of the words you use should be adverbs. Never use more than one per sentence.
Psychology behind them: You use adverbs to make something sound more intense, but like all weasel words, the more they pile up, the less believable they are.
Why you use them: You want to shock people into seeing how intensely you feel about something.
I’ve fucking had it with these motherfucking snakes on this motherfucking plane.
His speech was utter bullshit.
How you sound: Like a cliche hardbitten action-movie character. Angry and out of control.
Your quota: Highly dependent on your audience. If your workplace is profanity-tolerant, then you may be able to get away with one or two profanities per page. If it’s not, then avoid them (you could get fired). Some religious people find the use of the lord’s name in vain to be particularly offensive (it does violate one of the Ten Commandments), so avoid using God or Jesus as an intensifier or interjection in spoken or written communication.
Psychology behind them: Businesspeople — in my experience, mostly men — use profanities to get attention and express intensity. In any given workplace, this use tends to expand as people try to top each other. This leaves out and offends those who are unwilling to use these words, based on their upbringing and particular sensibilities. In the end, overuse of profanities marks you as someone who brings more heat than light to arguments — and like exclamation points, superlatives, and adverbs, the more you use, the less effective they are.
Obligatory and self-serving note: Obviously, given the name of this blog, I use one taboo word from time to time: bullshit. It has a precise definition for me (“any form of communication that fails to clearly and accurately transmit meaning”) and I felt it was the best way to describe what I was saying. I do not gratuitously use profanity. However, by using “bullshit,” I have limited my audience and alienated a few people. I made this choice consciously. If you’re thoughtful in how you use profanity and don’t mind alienating people, you may make the same choice.
Italics and bold
Why you use them: To emphasize words and phrases.
When does this make sense? Never. There is no good reason for this sort of offensive behavior.
Stop this instant. Stop. Stop. Stop!
How you sound: Like a ransom-note.
Your quota: Unlimited, for grammatical reasons (italic for book titles and foreign words, bold for openers to bullets and paragraphs like this one). But when used for emphasis, use italic no more than once every couple paragraphs. Avoid using bold for emphasis — it’s not grammatical and makes you look like an amateur.
Psychology behind them: Ever since it became easy to change fonts and styles, people have liked to play with them. Italic is a great way to show emphasis, but like any other technique, it fatigues the reader with overuse.
The table below summarizes these reasons.