Thursday, July 21, 2011

No! More! Exclamation Points!

As a freshly-minted museum director, I knew I'd develop at least one micro-managing quirk, something that would drive me totally nuts (and drive me to drive my staff nuts in response). I've found that thing. It's exclamation points.

Our whole team has been working to make our museum a more friendly, welcoming place, both in the building and online. I am completely impressed by the way that everyone, staff and interns alike, have taken up this call. The problem is exclamation points, which pop up unbidden, proliferate, and choke the goodwill of our messages with an over-cheeriness that swallows up the light. I've become the punctuation Grinch, walking into the museum at 7am, peeling exclamation points off the signs that invite people to Enjoy the Sculpture Garden!, capturing screenshots of overzealous Facebook updates and asking staff to please tone it down.

Exclamation points aren't exclusive to my museum. I see them everywhere, especially in institutions and exhibitions that cater to families and children. Watch the Step! Build a Bridge! It's Big Brother in a smiley face emoticon mask. I wish I had the authority in these other venues I have at home to tear the damn things down.

My sensitivity to this issue is undoubtably due to the fact that I myself am highly prone to enthusiastic displays of all kinds. I get the problem because I am the problem. I frequently have to revise my emails to reduce the number of exclamation points from three or four to one. The exclamation point is a kind of shorthand for all the goodwill and energy any of us feel for the things about which we are most passionate. I know how it feels to want to tell someone, "Amazing workshops and demos today at Experience Clay!" or "Great idea!" We feel personally invested and excited, and so we exclaim.

Excitement is good, but it's hard to direct it to a broad audience of visitors and passersby. Passion is best communicated personally, so that the receiver can soak in the directed energy of the giver. Exclamations fall flat when they are shared in the impersonal, one-to-many format of most museum communication. If a staff member talks a visitor through the museum map and then scrawls, "you will love this exhibit!" over a particular area, that statement feels genuine. It's infused with the specific energy of the relationship between those two people, no matter how brief. But that same statement printed on the map for all to see feels like a fraud. It turns a personal sentiment into a banal, desperate sales pitch.

It's also just plain sloppy from an editorial standpoint. There are many more powerful ways to convey enthusiasm, conviction, and energy through words than employing shorthand like capital letters or exclamation points. The most impassioned arguments do not rely on exultant punctuation. They rely on carefully-chosen language, pacing, and tone. Good opinion editors--and advertisers--don't use exclamation points.

Finally, as a visitor myself, I find exclamation points incredibly distracting. If the point is for visitors to enjoy the sculpture garden, what does the exclamation point add? Am I supposed to enjoy it more because of the exclamation point? Should I be surprised that there is a sculpture garden to enjoy? Should I enjoy it urgently? Even in situations where exclamation points are used to convey some surprise, i.e. "Orangutans Overhead!" at the zoo, I'm not sure that the exclamation point helps me. Is it supposed to convey that this is a fun opportunity to see animals above me or a cautionary message about potential danger? The exclamation point is an unnecessary bit of flash, a crutch that hinders more than it helps.

I know that every exclamation point that interns, staff members, or I put into museum communication is just meant to convey our own individual enthusiasms for the programs or projects at hand. But that conveyance is lost in translation to visitors and Facebook fans. It is distorted into a cheap plastic sentiment. It feels oddly aggressive. And it's just plain confusing.

I'm not arguing that we should drop our passion and excitement for what we do. I just think we need to be more rigorous in finding the best ways to express it.
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