Punctuation isn’t complicated, but it does exercise great power through the direction it provides and the meaning it helps create. And of course, the lack or misuse of punctuation creates confusion and misunderstanding. A little bit like leadership…
Punctuation is an essential – if not always consciously applied – part of our daily communication. When we write, those little dots, dashes, curls, capital letters, and other marks all provide powerful meaning and direction.
Let’s consider just six elements of punctuation as their principles relate to leadership:
- The capital letter
It signals the start of a sentence. Capitals also show respect for the names of people and places. Capitals give prominence. Leaders also give prominence by what (and who) they capitalize, what they show respect for, and where they choose to start things. Starting, naming and focusing are everyday ways in which leaders “punctuate” their mission, their methods and their meaning.
- The full stop (or period)
It brings a sentence to a close. “Enough of that, let’s move on to something else”, it says. As a general rule, the closer a full stop is to the start of a sentence the easier the sentence is to follow and understand. Being clear about commitments, completion and conclusions is equally essential for clarity in leadership. Of course, not every leadership commitment can be carried out with a simple start and stop. And so we have…
- The comma
This little mark has three essential roles: to separate introductory information in a sentence, to separate items in a list, and to insert explanatory or detailed information within a sentence. A tiny mark, but one whose placement can considerably alter meaning.
It’s important for leaders to be able to clearly connect and separate related events, activities and issues – like items in a list. It’s also vital to give context to what you’re asking – providing introductory information, if you like, before articulating the specific request. And sometimes there are qualifying or clarifying directions, explanations or requirements to be communicated.
Just as the comma is perhaps the most frequently misused punctuation mark, so too leaders can misplace, misuse or mistime pauses and comments. More information is not necessarily better communication.
- The colon
There are also three key ways the colon is used: to introduce a word or phrase that serves as explanation, clarification, summary, or interpretation; to introduce a list; and to formally introduce a quotation. Colons illustrate and amplify.
Leadership is punctuated with colons when we clearly establish, explain and enumerate. There’s a sense of order and rationale that a simple, clear list of ideas or explanations provides.
- The question mark
The question mark is one punctuation point that probably needs more rather than less use in our workplaces. Particularly in leadership. It invites response, encourages engagement and indicates an expectation of contribution.
“When we become leaders we feel that it is important for us to have answers rather than questions,” writes Michael Marquardt in Leading with Questions (2005). “The ability to ask questions goes hand in hand with the ability to learn. A learning organisation is only possible if it has a culture that encourages questions.”
The Spanish language does the question mark particularly well, placing an upside down version of it at the start of the sentence. This lets the reader know up front that what’s being said is a question, rather than requiring them to wait until the end of the sentence for that important context to be revealed.
¿It’s a great idea, don’t you think? Perhaps there’s something in that for leadership communication too.
- The exclamation point
Finally! The exclamation point conveys surprise, anger, strong emotion, or enthusiasm. While most business writing should be free of exclamation points (and exclamations!), they can add appropriate meaning in informal ways (e.g., note the difference between emailing someone “That’s great” versus “That’s great!”).
Two things about exclamation points and leadership: it’s important to occasionally and selectively signal appropriate surprise, appreciation, disapproval or enthusiasm by exclaiming; and, the more you do it the less impact it has – just as it does in writing.
In summary, the six punctuation points of leadership remind us that (colon):
- Leaders should carefully identify what gets capitalized so it’s clear what the starting point is and who the key identities are
- Leadership is as much about stopping as it is about starting (and you have to stop before you can start – just like a sentence)
- Leaders must carefully and clearly provide introductory information, separate issues and, as necessary, insert additional information
- Leadership is about providing a sense of order and rationale by clearly and simply establishing, explaining and enumerating
- Leaders must ask and encourage questions. What difference could that make?
- Leaders are expected to occasionally and appropriately exclaim their surprise, appreciation, emotion, disapproval and enthusiasm (!)
The point is, leadership requires appropriate punctuation – otherwise leadership can feel like an awfully long sentence for followers. So, how will you punctuate your leadership?