What I talk about when I’m looking for tacos

The language that works when we chat in Slack

Kieran Snyder
Mar 7, 2019 · 9 min read

Somewhere in me there are words that, if I write them on this page, you’ll be excited to continue reading. Somewhere in me there are also words that will make you roll your eyes and search for cat gifs instead. It may not be obvious to me ahead of time which are which.

For a words person, I am also a wordy person. Across all of Textio’s history, I have personally contributed 11% of the posts in our company Slack. I have written hundreds of thousands of words on this blog. I think in monologue. And this is the version of me that has learned to edit.

The words matter, and the medium does too. What works on Twitter is different from what works in the context of your performance reviews. (Warning: Both are kind of depressing, especially if you’re a woman.)

How about what works when you’re trying to hire a machine learning engineer? When you’re talking about your company benefits package? When you’re hiring specifically for San Francisco? In all these cases, the language that you use predictably changes who will respond.

At Textio, we think, talk, and write about this all day long. One place we do a lot of that writing is in Slack. It started me thinking: what language works when we talk to each other in Slack?

Emoji as outcomes

What counts as a positive outcome in the context of a Slack post? For a company that is all about words, I just kept coming back to the fact that when it comes to Slack, we generally show love through emoji. We acknowledge great posts with 🎉 or 👏 or, best of all, 🌮. (Because everything is better when you throw in a taco.)

So which words get the tacos (or claps or tadas or Textio logos or hearts)? I decided to find out what was working in my own Slack posts.

For the purposes of this discussion, I assume that any emoji comment made on one of my posts counts as a positive outcome. It’s true that a 🌮 is different from a 😠, but I’m giving myself credit for both.

Words are not all there is

As with any written communication, the words make the response — but sometimes other factors intervene. Maybe I write a perfectly crafted and thoughtful set of observations, but right after me, someone posts five pictures of their new puppy and my message scrolls offscreen. No one can compete with a puppy. I just refuse to feel bad about that.

In addition to looking at my words themselves, I also looked at some of the other factors that change how my posts land.

A little note on methodology

When it comes to emoji responses in Slack, there are two different outcomes I measured: how many distinct emoji types show up in response to my post (did I just get a 🍖, or did I get a 🍖 AND a 🌮?), and how many emojis show up in total (how many times did the post get some emoji, regardless of how many different emoji types showed up?)?

Look at all these emoji types!

I looked at both emoji outcomes and it turns out the patterns that drive these two outcomes are a little bit different. More on that below.

The other important thing to know is that more readers = more potential for more emoji. In Textio’s first few months, we only had five people at the company. Today we have 130. It’s hard to compare outcomes across such different denominators, so I didn’t try.

Instead, I just looked at my posts from the last 12 months, during which time Textio approximately doubled in size. I normalized the numbers to reflect what we get at our current size. That’s not perfect, but it’s close enough for a blog about taco emoji.

I also only looked at my official “posts,” meaning I didn’t include all the random junk that I type inline in the hundreds of daily conversations I participate in. When I dash off, “This meeting is running late. Be there soon,” or “What did you learn on Thursday’s call?” I don’t deserve a taco.

So what gets the tacos?

Naturally, it all starts with the words.

Language is an infinitely varying system. I can put any words together in any way I like. I can even make up new words entirely. As such, no two posts are the same.

Still, especially in the context of weekly kickoff posts, there are some recurring themes. It isn’t too hard to identify the phrases that show up more often than the rest:

I was not surprised to see that phrases like you can help, what you’ve learned, team-minded, and grateful top the list of emoji-getters.

The phrases that generate the most emoji reinforce the way that many Textios describe themselves and our environment; we are a group of people motivated more by pitching in and learning than we are by any one particular goal.

But how many words?

The specific words I use change the outcomes I see. How many of them I string together at once also makes a difference. More is not better, but less is not better either.

When my posts contain fewer than 200 words, the early readers come out strong, giving me an average of 3.9 different emoji types per post. But after that initial rush of emoji types, things never really get off the ground. I only get 19.8 total emoji per post when the posts are that short.

When the posts contain more than 600 words, I get fewer emoji types overall: just 2.1. No one wants to read stuff that’s too long.

The sweet spot is in the middle. Between 400–600 words, I get just 2.8 emoji types, but a whopping 41.1 emoji in total. Between 200–400 words, I get more emoji types (3.4 on average), but just 21.3 in total.

Shorter posts get a wider range of reactions, perhaps because more people read them. Longer posts get more people to respond overall, perhaps because their content is more thoughtful.

But not too long. Note to self: Be wordy. Don’t be boring.

Not all posts are created equal

I only looked at Slack posts for this write-up, because I write too many one-off plain text comments and I didn’t have time to reasonably classify them all. (Next personal takeaway: It is ok to be a little wordy, but I could probably give it a rest already.)

The posts I write fall into two categories. There’s the weekly kickoff I send to the whole company every Monday morning, which is a regular and predictable thing. There are also the ad-hoc posts that I write at random times about random topics. People like the second way more than they like the first.

The weekly kickoff posts are typically less juicy than the ad-hoc posts, which celebrate product launches, share reports from customer visits, wax philosophical about data acquisition, and more. The ad-hoc posts get three times more emoji types than the weekly kickoffs, and four times more emoji overall.

At least as measured by emoji reactions, no one really cares about my weekly kickoff posts. It is a little bit crushing to my inner PM.

Unfortunately, I like writing these kickoffs, so everyone is probably stuck with them anyway. Maybe I’ll try writing them all in emoji next week.

Name-drop all the names

The only thing people like more than talking about themselves is talking about each other. One surefire way to bring on the emoji storm is to tag the people you’re talking about when you make the post.

An extra-good way to get as many emoji as possible is to tag our VP of Engineering, who has 16 distinct emoji with his face included.

:spinning-bobby: has especial panache

People like to work during the workday

I know, this is a shocking insight. People mostly prefer to work when they’re at work.

At Textio, we value flexibility a lot. On a personal level, I am as apt to work on a Friday night as I am to leave at 4pm on a Monday to coach my kid’s basketball team. We have people who come in to the office early and leave early, people who come in late and leave late, and people who weave multiple periods of work into their day and take long breaks for other stuff in the middle.

This schedule flexibility is important to us and it works for us. One thing it means is that our Slack is alive at most hours, and it’s up to the individual person to decide when they’re working.

Given that, I was surprised that when I post matters.

The headline here? I’m a morning person. No one else is.

I can’t compete with puppies, and other things I can’t control

I pick the words that I use. I decide when, where, and how I post. I choose who to tag in the post. There are many parts of my writing that I control, and all of these have a real impact on the response I get.

But I can’t control what happens after I post…

When someone posts something unrelated right after I post, no matter what the topic, engagement on my post goes down. If what they post is either funny or heartwarming, my emoji activity dwindles to zero.

The exception? Good old giphy. When someone follows up to my post with a gif, emoji engagement on my post goes through the roof.

Semi-related: Across our company Slack, heartwarming posts get significantly more emoji love than funny ones — more than double the emoji in total. This is true not only for my posts, but for everyone’s.

Lesson: My heartwarming tribute to the coworker who helped me out is easy for everyone to appreciate, but my funny story about no one wanting to sit next to me on the bus may not be as funny as I think. Or maybe it is funny, but not ha-ha funny? Maybe it’s just that no one wants to sit next to me on the bus.

What does it all mean?

When I told a friend that I was writing this blog, he asked if I thought that the patterns would change by virtue of me having published them. Like, if I know that people give more tacos when I talk about our customers than they do when I talk about our goals, will that change what I write? If people see that the model says they ought to be adding a ❤️ to my post, are they more or less likely to do it?

The exquisite reality is that, even if I were so inclined, I can only control the patterns that I’m aware of. Because we are infinite and creative communicators, there is whole world of other factors that I never even consider. Those patterns make or break my success too. And all the patterns change over time, since language doesn’t stand still.

Just when I think I’ve figured out what’s going to earn my next post an unlimited taco buffet, the system has already moved on. In this world of constant evolution, having software to help me make sense of the patterns is my secret advantage as a communicator.

I’ll give that a 🌮.

Textio Blog

Writing about the future of writing

Thanks to Marissa Coughlin and Tim Halloran

Kieran Snyder

Written by

Textio Blog

Writing about the future of writing

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