Today we're going to talk about the written equivalent of voice tone and body language: the nonverbal parts of written word.
Here in the 21st century, we’re all on display, all the time. When you start a new job, within moments your bosses and co-workers have Googled you, Binged you, Facebooked you, LinkedIned you, and Instagramed you. They’ve read what you’ve written. They’ve seen your poetry blog. Which means that all of it—every single bit—will factor into how they perceive you.
Content and form are different
The online world is dangerous and scary if we say the wrong things.
You declare “i love rhubarb cupcake” All lower case. No punctuation. Within 7 hours, the Rhubarb People’s Collective is organizing a letter writing campaign to get you declared a rhubarb-terrorist who commits the unpardonable sin of transforming this most delicious of plants into lowly cupcakes. That’s because they didn’t like the content of your message. Content is the actual words and information in your post.
Form is how you convey your content. It’s the writing equivalent of voice tone, body language, and other nonverbal communication.
Form makes an unconscious impression
How you express your ideas matters.
When people read your writing, they’ll respond consciously to your content. “Ban the evil-rhubarb defiler who desecrates all rhubarb by making it into lowly cupcakes!”
When people read your writing, they’ll respond consciously to your content. Unconsciously, however, they’ll respond to the form.
Unconsciously, however, they’ll respond to the form. “Wow, that rhubarb loser didn’t capitalize or use punctation. We must shame this incompetent doofus publicly!“
This is a dreadful reaction! The only thing worse than being harassed by the People’s Rhubarb Collective is being harassed and not even having the dignity of being taken seriously by the Collective.
With the rise of social media and texting, we’ve been going through different conventions for different media. You write in one style when texting, and another when writing longer form messages. But for the most part, the unconscious cues haven’t changed. If you want to manage your public reputation, personal brand, online presence, or whatever you call it when your boss looks at your Insta and judges you based on what they find, play it safe—manage the unconscious impression as well.
Although it’s all the rage not to use punctuation these days, punctuation exists for a reason—it clarifies your intent. Your need to enroll in the rhubarb witness protection program wouldn’t have happened if only you had used the right punctuation. With no comma, the phrase “I love rhubarb cupcake” sounds like you are going to kill the rhubarb and make it into cupcakes. That’s why the Rhubarb People’s Collective got so upset.
They didn’t know you were writing to your shmoopie, whom you call “cupcake.” Just add a comma and your sentence becomes ”I love rhubarb, cupcake." They would have cheered you on for this wonderful, novel way you've chosen to romance your shmoopie.
Sixty or seventy years ago, poet e e cummings abandoned capitalization. So for all you young ‘uns out there who think that writing in all lowercase makes you modern, you’re actually emulating an acclaimed poet from the early 20th century. That makes you extraordinary historical scholars, and we salute you.
Until you’re famous, however, using all lower case can seem way too informal. Your friends may love it, but when you’re posting in public where your boss or co-workers can see, you’ll come across as someone not worth taking very seriously.
It’s a shame, really, because when you explain your cancer cure in all lower case, they won’t even read the whole thing. Meanwhile, @IveReallyCuredCancer16, the person responding to you with perfect capitalization and punctuation, is actually a troll. They’re claiming there’s a study (there isn’t) showing that cancer can be cured with cornstarch, water, and food coloring (it can’t).
Tragically, the human race will miss your cancer cure. Happily, for several day traders in Duluth, cornstarch futures will go through the roof.
Use Good Grammar
Once you have the words, punctuation, and capitalization working for you, make sure to pay attention to grammar. Grammar includes the words you choose, how you use phrases and clauses, and how you order your words within a sentence.
Using good grammar helps you come across as thoughtful and intelligent. Using poor grammar for any reason—even if it’s because you’re writing in a language that you aren’t fluent in—comes across as less capable, less thoughtful, and less worth taking seriously. It shouldn’t. Ideas should stand on their own merit. But remember, this stuff is unconscious. Poor grammar will affect people’s impression of you.
Using good grammar helps you come across as thoughtful and intelligent.
Consider how regional and cultural dialects and colloquialisms might affect how you're perceived. Linguistically, different dialects are all perfectly legitimate variations of language. In terms of the impression they make online, they can work against you when they're used out of context. In American business, you’ll make the best impression when your language is standard and grammatically correct. At least until the day we overcome linguistic bias.
Fortunately, you can always hone and improve your grammar. Grammar Girl, founder of the Quick and Dirty Tips network, has the best podcast on grammar tips ever to grace the airwaves. Subscribe to her podcast if you don’t already. In writing this episode, I referred to her episode on how to use “em-dashes” so I could make sure to use them correctly in the show transcript.
Write with structure
If you’re doing long-form writing—a paragraph, an essay, a twitter thread, or a long LinkedIn post—you can further boost your impression by structuring your writing. You’ll make several different points in a longer piece, and the order matters.
There’s no one order that will always make sense. Generally, start by briefly recapping relevant information everyone knows and agrees on. “Brief” is important. You’re setting the stage, and showing readers you have a common understanding.
A strong narrative will hold your readers’ attention. You don’t want them checking out.
Then move on to your main points. If you’re making a recommendation, you might start with the recommendation, and follow with the reasoning. If you’re persuading, you might start with evidence and build up to your conclusion. Either way, a strong narrative will hold your readers’ attention. You don’t want them checking out.
My personal favorite book on structure is The Minto Pyramid Principle, by Barbara Minto. It’s the best guide I’ve ever found on how to structure logic so it flows for readers.
The nonverbal aspects of speech manifest in text as spelling, punctuation, capitalization, grammar, and structure. They aren’t processed consciously, so people will skew their impression of you based on these nonverbal elements. When you care about your public reputation, it’s worth putting in the effort to master all of these.
Not paying attention to how you present yourself online is like showing up to a job interview in a ripped T-shirt and cutoff shorts, with unwashed hair. While it’s true your clothing has nothing to do with your ability to do a job, it still affects the impression you make. Remember: from the People’s Rhubarb Collective to your boss, co-workers, and new shmoopie candidate, managing how you come across will make a world of difference.
GET MORE GET-IT-DONE GUY
I’m Stever Robbins. I don’t like to wear suits, but I do love to use em-dashes. You can follow Get-It-Done Guy on Twitter and Facebook. If you lead an organization or a large movement, you think big, and you plan to change the world, I can help you organize your life to make bigger things possible without getting overwhelmed. Learn more at SteverRobbins.com. Listen and subscribe on Apple, Spotify, Google, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts. Subscribe to the monthly Get-It-Done Guy newsletter to get productivity tips delivered straight to your inbox.
Work Less, Do More, and have a Great Life!