Business Writing: Don’t Fall For The Emphasis Myth

You’ve just developed a letter, an email, an article, or a blog post, and one sentence is particularly important. You want to make sure nobody misses it. So you should put it in ALL CAPS, RIGHT?

Wrong. You probably don’t need to boldface it, either. In fact, if its importance is obvious, you probably don’t have to highlight it in any way. If it’s important to the reader, he or she will grasp that without having to be told.

Over-emphasis is one of the most common mistakes I see in business writing. Most of the time, people who add emphasis to a word, clause, or sentence by underlining it, putting it in boldface or italics, or — God forbid — typing it in ALL CAPS are doing so because they want to make their words more powerful. They’re convinced that setting those words off with added emphasis will call more attention to them.

That kind of thinking is all around us. Whoever put that sign demanding that you keep the office coffeemaker clean thought you wouldn’t pay attention, so she typed it in all caps and boldface. The owner of the local greasy spoon was tired of being asked to take outdated coupons, so he posted a note in big letters with multiple underlines. And that email from your company’s IT department assumed that you were an idiot who wouldn’t remember to change your password on Thursday, so ENTIRE SENTENCES WERE WRITTEN IN ALL CAPS SO YOU’D PAY ATTENTION.

Remember how your fifth-grade teacher reacted to your classmates who behaved badly? She made new rules for everyone to follow. She put them on the board in big letters and underlined them. Did those rules change the behavior of those young reprobates? Did they pay attention when she tapped on the rules with her chalk or marker? Nah, didn’t think so.

The same thing happens with all that added emphasis. Guess what? The people who won’t pay attention to it when it’s in normal type won’t pay attention just because you’ve made it more noticeable. The guy who never cleans the coffeemaker won’t start because you used boldface. Five minutes after the restaurant owner taped his notice to the counter, someone handed him a coupon that expired in November. And on Friday morning, your IT administrator will be fuming, because those idiots didn’t change their passwords.

Trying to make your message more powerful by tagging it with all sorts of emphasis is actually a form of communicating through intimidation. It’s the equivalent of trying to get everyone in the meeting to pay attention to what you have to say by yelling. You’ll get their attention, all right, but for the wrong reasons. Instead of coming across as more knowledgeable and more convincing, you’ll appear to be a bully.

If you really want people to pay attention to what you’re trying to convey, the key is to make it meaningful to them. If it’s something that matters and they believe it will be useful to them, they’ll read it. Every single word, whether you’ve printed it in normal type or boldface. But be careful: just because you think something should be important in their eyes doesn’t mean that they’ll agree.

Are there times when adding emphasis can be useful? Absolutely, particularly when what you’ve developed is lengthy. The emphasis can help the reader navigate through what you’ve written, so they can get to the most important part. But instead of using all capital letters or boldface, try underscoring or italic type. And never use multiple forms of emphasis on the same words, because that’s like shouting while jumping up and down and throwing things. You’ll become the center of attention, but not in a constructive way.

Most of all, treat emphasis like cooking spices. A twist or two of black pepper, and you’ve accented the flavor of your soup. More than that, and it becomes inedible.

Want a simple test for whether the amount of emphasis you’re using is appropriate? Read whatever you’ve written aloud. When you come to text that’s italicized, boldfaced, or underlined, raise your voice slightly. If you encounter text that’s in ALL CAPS, yell as you read it. I suspect that once you “hear” how your wording “sounds” to the ear, you’ll scale back the amount of emphasis… and you’ll use less of it in the future.