All posts by Rick Cole

About Rick Cole

Rick is a Social Media Strategist and Senior Consultant at Smith. Contact the author directly

What does this mean?

Rewriting writing rules in real time.

Red pen regime

When I hear any fuss about textspeak—weird punctuation, abbreviations, inventive phrasing and other short cuts that are common to texting— I think about the moral certitude of Mrs. Wilson. She was my 8thgrade English teacher and the type of grammarian who would send a parent’s note back to them with the errors circled in red ink.

Mrs. Wilson taught us the rules of grammar as though they had descended from Mt. Sinai. These were not to be questioned, only obeyed in their immutable state of perfection.  

Many hold on to Mrs. Wilson’s view of grammar, not recognizing that these rules are not laws of nature. No, grammar and punctuation are invented technological conventions designed to help us merge speech, writing and printing. 

Like any technology, these conventions have a beginning and a history. Mrs. Wilson’s rules have only been with us for a couple hundred years.  

Disruption 1.0

About 500 years ago, before the printing press was invented, books were hand-illustrated, rare and extremely expensive. Also, most weren’t written in the vernacular, but in Latin. 

Latin, an inflected language, doesn’t use word order to determine sentence structure. Instead, agreement between prefixes and suffixes determine syntax. Even with the words rearranged, each sentence below reads, “Bad is the plan that cannot be changed.” 

malum consilium quod mutari non potest

non postest quod mutari consilium malum 

quod mutari malum consilium non potest 

To make matters even more confusing, up until just before the printing press was invented scribes didn’t use punctuation or even spaces between words. They wrote in a form called scriptio continua

malumconsiliumquodmutarinonpotest

A page in a book looked like this: 

A little hard to read.

The way people read scriptio continua without punctuation was out loud, allowing the inflections in the language signal all of the separations and meanings. 

The point of this little history lesson is that only a few centuries ago most people didn’t read. Those that did, commonly read aloud. And the majority of existing books didn’t have punctuation or space between words. Then everything changed with Johannes Guttenberg’s movable type press. BOOM!

Movable Type

The printing press awoke and transformed forms of writing that had been stagnant for a couple millennia. It facilitated knowledge sharing and built connections between people and cultures. But this didn’t happen immediately. 

For the first 200 years of printing, there were no agreed upon rules. Each little town’s printers invented their own way of making books. They made up their own unique spacing and punctuation and also cut and pasted ideas from competing printers. From this process emerged various letter shapes, punctuation marks, spacing, sentences, paragraphs, chapters, etc. 

Over time, these divergent methods merged into the standardized grammar rules that were lovingly taught to us by sweet middle-school teachers with red pens. 

Most of the grammar and punctuation rules that we think are permanent have only become standardized over the past couple of hundred years. In fact, even standardized rules are in flux.  

Fresh and in your face

Today, we are living at an exciting new moment for writing. Computers are freeing words and meanings from the limits of a printed page. New literacies and grammars are being created on the fly. Just like with the first little print shops in Europe, it’s untamed masses (not red pen gatekeepers) who are inventing (un)rules for using OMGs, #s and Emoji.  

Digital forms like text messaging, file sharing and streaming are shifting once immovable constraints of time and space, integrating a myriad of media, and empowering new connections across the globe. 

This makes this a really cool time for writing geeks. We still have the highly precise and refined Standard English for writing contracts and such. And we have this vibrant, eclectic, inventive, bubbling stew of digital communication that is constantly changing, constantly evolving. 

This is a major disruption. Grammars that we viewed as permanent we now see were simply asleep. Computer processors, small screens and user desire are creating something fresh right in front of us.  

People are just starting to write about textspeak. Some write from a linguist’s perspective, others with a cultural curiosity. For me communication is the most interesting issue. How are people connecting and making sense of life while using the capabilities of these new platforms? 

The following observations just scratch the surface of what’s happening with textspeak. 

Short for abbreviation

Two main reasons drive textspeak abbreviations. First, the screen on an SMS text box is small and it scrolls. Every space and character are precious in a small space that must be read in a linear fashion. Second, it’s hip to know what others don’t. Never rule out cool as a driver of change.   

Using abbreviations on a small interface is nothing new. Check out the writing on this coin for the Emperor Trajan: 

Those Romans could pack a lot pomp onto one side of a coin. Two thousand years later, nothing much has changed for our folks in Washington.

At least NASA is kind of cool.

In textspeak, abbreviations and acronyms often signal idioms and colloquialisms, not literal meanings. Where IRS is short for a scary government agency, people writing lol usually aren’t laughing. Sarcasm, irony and slang underscore a lot of textspeak.  

This is where the hip factor comes into play. If you don’t have the 411 on how to KPC then H-MDY…H_FDAY you’re old, slow and uncool. As with any slang, textspeak is a moving target. Try and keep up. 

Here is a list common textspeak abbreviations.

Blocking and Spacing

There’s a maxim in real estate investing—highest and best use—that says a structure needs to elevate the value of the land. In a text message the screen is like an empty lot in San Francisco. You want to be careful to build the right house on it. 

Sorry Shakespeare

Long scrolling texts are very difficult to read because, unlike a full-size page, one’s eye cannot scan back up through the document to connect points and references. Both the writer and the reader can easily get lost. 

They’re also unfriendly. Imagine a conversation where one of the parties just kept talking and talking while the other party was reduced to simply nodding. Many good conversational on and off ramps are bulldozed in a long text. Maybe, send an email instead. 

Monologue v. Dialogue

Blocking and spacing is a textspeak alternative to punctuation that helps us stop/pause/resume. It also enables the writer to separate and emphasize important points in the conversation.

Remembering that texting more closely approximates talking than it does formal writing, blocks and spaces also make room for the reader to jump in with a comment, rebuttal or (more typically) a random non sequitur.  

ALL CAPS

ALL CAPS are everywhere in advertising and print media. They are meant to stand out and grab our attention. However well they’ve worked for marketers, they don’t have a great reputation in interpersonal correspondence. 

Most of us have either sent or received an angry email. So, we understand that ALL CAPS MEANS SHOUTING!!! But we don’t only shout when were mad. Sometimes we shout when we’re excited or happy, or even ironic: 

  • To exclaim: CONGRATS
  • To emphasize: We will be heading to Atlanta NEXT WEEKEND 
  • To be ironic:  I’m so CHILL 
  • To show how out of touch we are:  LOL is so 2008…lol 

Punctuation optional? (not exactly)  

As I mentioned in my last article, the punctuation issue is getting on peoples’ last nerve. Old school writers are baffled by its chaotic absence and digital natives are thrilled to see it go and change. Here are a few of the ways punctuation is different in textspeak:

  • The period signals passive-aggressiveness.
  • An asterisk signals *emphasis*, like little sparkles.
  • The ~humble~ tilde is sarcastic. 
  • A semicolon says show off.
  • An apostrophe signals anal retentiveness. 
  • A single question mark begs a response. Three or more says W@ dude???

For more on evolving punctuation, check this out. 

Sprinkles on Top

Smartphones let us drop wonderful sprinkles on top of our textspeak. We can add music, photos, emoticon, emoji, gifs, video, and more. Linking media is one of my favorite aspects of digital communication. It reminds me of being a kid and discovering a great new band. Half the joy was sharing the music with my friends. 

Over the next few articles we’ll take a closer look at the sprinkles that color to our Internet conversations.  

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Puppy Pics, Pound Signs and Sad Keanu

When grammar and punctuation go missing.

Smiths Are or Smith Is?

We Smiths have an over-healthy love of the communication arts. Some might even call us word nerds.  

For example, Smith Communication Partners is not named after a person. The word smith means artisan. Like blacksmith, except we’re implying wordsmith

Think about it. Not only did we dig the esoteric meaning of smith, but we also loved the idea of presenting ourselves as communication artisans (word nerds). As an added bonus, we loved the ambiguity created because Smith is also a common surname. 

Other signs that we are word nerds:

  • We share “war stories” about the typos we find in marketing materials.
  • We send each other pictures of bad grammar on billboards and signs.
  • We post photos of beautifully crafted sentences when we find them .
  • We know and talk a lot about fonts (Have you seen the Helvetica documentary?). 
  • Some of us (names withheld to protect the guilty) critique punctuation errors in text messaging.
  • We all bought Eats, Shoots & Leaves.

You get the picture. We’re pretty deep into it. 

It’s Like the Wild West

So, imagine the alternating waves of excitement and terror washing over us for the past few years, as social media and the ubiquity of cell phones have given rise to new and strange ways of communicating and messages that seem to operate without any rules. What’s with all the pound signs? #chaos #grammarpolice  

The sharing of texts, memes, GIFs and emoji, are now the norm. They are not only supplanting informal writing, but also talking. (Say bye-bye to phone calls.) Most troubling to word nerds, almost all these emerging text forms have burst on to the scene without any agreed upon grammars or norms. 

In real time, people (mostly young people) are creating their own language, idioms and meanings using all of the ingredients found on their phones (text, image, audio, video and hypertext). It’s like the Wild West, this free exchange of ideas without any controlling authority. 

Pretty exciting, but can’t we use a comma now and again?

The truth is there are grammars and norms in operation. They just aren’t standardized (yet) and aren’t always visible. In her book, Because Internet, Gretchen McCulloch traces the rise of many of these new, implicit grammars. Of note are the various “typographical tone[s] of voice” that can be achieved by using CAPITALIZATION, minimal punctuation, message breaking, alternative meanings to various keyboard signals, and other nifty inventions. 

While new ways of communicating can be exciting and fun, they can also create difficulties for people who expect different norms to be in operation. Commenting on how evolving ways to use a period to end a sentence creates misunderstanding, McCulloch states:

“[A message] from an older relative to a teenager, or a boomer boss to a millennial employee reads differently depending on what you think is neutral.”

Because Internet p. 112

Suddenly, the world is a very confusing place for word nerds, communication consultants and all people who know (and care) about when to use a comma and when to use a semicolon.  

If You Can’t Beat Them

It’s important to remember that these emerging forms of “writing” are taking the place of talking, not formal writing. All of the existing rules of proper English use are still exceedingly important in business, law, government and academia—anywhere precision is important.

So let’s take a joyful and open stance towards these changes. Sending puppy pictures, Sad Keanu memes, and 🤷🏼‍♀️  is new and inventive and wonderfully expressive. 

I say enjoy the ride. 

To make that ride easier, over the next couple of months I will write five articles that examine, explain and extol the virtues of Txt messaging, memes, GIFs, emoji and link-sharing. The point is to learn a little about how they are created, used and understood.  And, maybe, to consider how these informal modes might make their way into a professional’s communication toolbox. 

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Authenticity

Believable internal branding

Marketing isn’t always brutally honest. At best, it tends to exaggerate the upside and ignore the downside. At worst, it resorts to hype, slickness and even deception. This leads many consumers to consider most marketing communications phony.    

Cynical consumers are more difficult to reach. So serious brands are cultivating authenticity as a remedy to prevent consumer skepticism and apathy. When companies adopt a marketing approach that is authentic, genuine and truthful, it helps build consumer confidence, especially when that approach aligns with a consumer’s experience. 

Measuring authenticity

Authenticity simply means real, reliable and genuine. Not phony. So how does a consumer know when a brand is making authentic claims?

Marketing researchers try to quantify authenticity to understand its effectiveness. Often, they look at two types of signals that consumers receive from a brand called “indexical” and “iconic” cues.[1]These cues are the evidence by which consumers evaluate a brand’s claims.

Indexical cues are those experiences/evidences that are real and measurable—800 thread count for a set of sheets. Indexical cues are verifiable and not subjective. They either are true or not.

Iconic cues are those that resemble the object, as in “these sheets feel like liquid silk.” These are cues marketers use to represent the actual product or experience. These claims are subjective. Yet they are verifiable through the consumer experience. Authenticity hinges on the gap between the two cues.

So soft

According to Becker, et al., it’s not the object (sheets) that create authenticity, but the messages and other signals sent by the brand. The reality is fixed. The sheets have an actual thread count, and either are or are not soft.  The expectation of “liquid silk” is created in the mind of the consumer. When the two align, authenticity is established. When the claims are exaggerated, authenticity is damaged. 

Authenticity is easy (if you’re a marketer)

Creating authenticity should be a simple task for most marketers. Simply deliver on brand promises. A shoe seller need not be perfect. They just have to sell shoes that meet or exceed the expectations they set. 

Five-dollar flip-flops won’t be inauthentic if they’ve blown out by the end of a long beach weekend. They’ve fulfilled their implied $5-shoe brand promise. 

However, a $95 pair of Allbirds, which claim to be the “Worlds most comfortable shoe,” sustainable, and 100% washable because they’re made from wool, has a much higher bar than the flip-flop. Allbirds had better feel great and come through the wash like a champ. If they don’t deliver, they lose authenticity.

Work and play

Compared to internal communicators, marketers have it easy because the consumer’s exposure is limited to the brand and its products. 

When I buy shoes, I neither know nor care if the person packing my box is a miserable crank, the break room smells like reheated cabbage soup, or the corporate culture is toxic or chaotic. All of that is invisible to me as a consumer. I have no direct experience with the internal workings of the organization. So my sense of a brand’s authenticity is easier to build and maintain.

Unfortunately, things are not so easy in employee communications.  

Workplace challenges to authenticity

“A prophet is not without honor except in his hometown.”

This phrase is shorthand for the phenomena where one’s talents are not appreciated by those closest to them. This lack of respect can come from many places. 

Sometimes we have relationships to persons/situations that are removed from what makes them special. Tom Brady’s kids don’t care about his Super Bowl rings, they just want him to sit down and watch Frozen again.  

Sometimes, we’re close enough to see the real situation or person, warts and all. Close proximity often causes situations and people to lose their luster.  As essayist William Hazlet put it, “Familiarity may not breed contempt, but it takes the edge off admiration.”

Remember, employees experience the organization as it actually is, not as we depict it to be. Employees spend eight or more hours a day living and working inside indexical cues. This hardens them to iconic cues that don’t line up with their experience.

Employees know the true score; who’s the office crank, how the break room smells and how well the organization treats them. They also have memories built on internal brand promises made in the past. All of that informs credibility whenever you craft a message or campaign.

That isn’t to say that employees won’t buy into aspirational and motivational communication. They certainly will. Employees want and need forward-thinking leadership to stay hopeful, happy and engaged. But, they won’t believe messages that ignore today’s reality. Own the reality to make your messages authentic. 

Authenticity is critical to long-term success and healthy corporate cultures. Shading the truth and over-promising leads to cynicism and disengagement. A firm foundation of truth and reality builds employee trust and increases leaders’ ability to engage and challenge them. 


[1]Becker, M., Weigand, N. and Reineartz, W. (2019). Does It Pay to Be Real? Understanding Authenticity in TV Advertising.

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ABCs of a 21st Century Writer

Making Sense of Prose and Pixels

Audience

Start with your audience—what they know, what they need to know and how they make sense of the world.

Brevity

Tight copy may be the “soul of wit,” yet it takes twice as long to write.

Context

A pre-existing set of conditions affect how audiences hear. Incorporate context to add layers of meaning. Ignore context and risk failing to connect.

Drafts

The third draft is always better than the first or second. The fifth? Not so much. Exert the right amount of effort and resist obsession.

Ethos

The Greeks knew some stuff. Beyond the prevailing zeitgeist, every corporate culture, marketplace and social media following taps into specific memories, values and language to make meaning. Persuasiveness often hinges on these.

Feedback Loops

Natural feedback signals are lost when we use any media—from writing books to broadcasting video. Many of today’s technologies, like social media, are including ways to measure audience reactions. Click-through rates, watch-times and other social media listening techniques act virtually to tell us what’s resonating and why.

Graphics

Modern readers unconsciously judge our visual production values against everything else they encounter. Graphic design increases readability and keeps our messages relevant in fast-moving media environments.

Hyperlinks Definitely the most underappreciated, yet one of the most powerful, writing developments in our lifetime. Hypermedia de-clutters our prose while adding unimaginable richness to our documents.

Interface

Our documents are read on a myriad of screens—some the size of matchbooks, others the size of walls. Anticipate which interfaces your audience uses to design features like graphics, audio, video and interactivity.

Juxtaposition

Compare and contrast to help delineate and distinguish.

Knowledge Management

Communication is more and more about managing information flows, platform integration and data analysis. Technology and numbers can often intimidate communicators. They shouldn’t. Written language is a profoundly complicated technology. If you can master English, spreadsheets should be like coloring books.

Laughter

Comedy is best left to professionals.

“There is a thin line that separates laughter and pain, comedy and tragedy, humor and hurt.” — Erma Bombeck

Modality

Text is great for brevity and/or complexity. Video captures short attention spans. Audio contains subtle cues and emotional richness. Interactivity engages the mind, the will and the body. What mode is best? Digital communication is beautiful because we can incorporate all of these into our campaigns.

Negativity

It’s not all sunshine and lemonade. If you are actually saying something important, someone else is likely disagreeing. Anticipate possible negative reactions and integrate effective responses when possible. On social media, always have strategies for dealing with negative posts. Especially learn how to deal with trolls.(Hint: don’t feed them.)

Obvious

Don’t do the thinking for your audience. You’ll bore them and lose them.

PowerPoint

I know we have to use PowerPoint, but why so badly? When you use it, avoid the well-known sins that lead to glassy looks and ineffective presentations.

Questions

For interest, create questions in the minds of your audience; questions they must answer for themselves. For clarity, answer questions for your audience; questions they might ask if they could.

Repeat

If it needs to be said, say it again and again. Then say it a different way. Then repeat it. Then recap, referencing the first three times you said it. Cut a groove into an audience’s memory that isn’t easily erased.

Speed

Quick turnarounds, instantaneous responses and on-the-go content development are creating pressures for communicators to be faster and faster. It’s amazing and exhilarating to open a mobile app and produce a fully formatted video that posts 5 minutes after initial inception. It’s also exhausting and sometimes reckless to move at the pace afforded by these platforms. Tap the brakes for better content.

Timing

Impatience can cause an argument or initiative to fail on the launch pad. Measure the moment, looking for what the Greeks called kairos (the fullness of time, the pregnant moment). This is especially important to campaigns where information builds upon itself or momentum is desired.

Unaddressed Issues

When you choose not to address issues that are important to your audience, it’s often helpful to signal that and why you’ve made a conscious choice and are not guilty of ignorance or oversight.

Voice

Professionals often find it easier to slip into their client’s voice than to find their own. We all have a style. We just have to open our mouth and sing to find it.

Words

I love words. You love words. The right word is a delicious morsel; the crafted sentence a feast. It may seem that technology is pushing words aside, but fear not. Words accomplish things AI never will. In the hands of artisans (Smiths), words reach into our memories, touch our hearts and create our possible worlds.

X-rated

Always avoid blue jokes and references (see Laughter).

Yell

SOMETIMES IT’S GOOD TO GO BIG!!!

Zig when others zag.

If everyone is using digital, it may be time to mail a beautifully crafted, glossy print piece.

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