Twitter’s growing popularity has yielded one unusual result: It has exposed the frailty of writing skills in the business world. You can fudge bad writing in a 20-slide presentation, but not in a 140-character tweet. From abbreviation-laden tweets with no discernible value, to tweets that fail to compel followers to click through on a link, examples abound. The process of constructing a good Twitter message takes careful thought, time and analysis.
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Clearly, the 140-character limit adds a degree of difficulty for people who already struggle with writing for less restrictive, more long-form friendly mediums, such as e-mail or blogs.
While we failed to find a panacea for constructing the perfect tweet — since the “perfect tweet” largely depends on your audience, your profession, and how you use Twitter — we compiled some guidelines from industry analysts and people who tweet uncommonly well.
Every day, we all receive work e-mails that are littered with improper grammar, spelling and all-lowercase letters. Given how many e-mails most of us receive in a day, such messages become, at best, an unwelcome sight, and, at worst, disrespectful of our time.
Twitter is no different. Some people follow thousands of other people on Twitter, populating their streams (home pages) with, in some cases, hundreds of tweets a minute. Obviously, people will skip over sloppy tweets, or trivial tweets, because they simply don’t have the time.
“If you sound like a 13-year-old in an instant message conversation, that’s not going to make people want to read your [Twitter] messages,” says Susan Daffron (@susandaffron), president of Logical Expressions, a company that helps people self-publish books.
As your user-base diversifies to include people from different backgrounds, you should avoid abbreviations unless it’s absolutely necessary, says Laura Fitton (@pistachio), who runs Pistachio Consulting, a firm that helps companies utilize Twitter.
“I generally go out of my way to avoid abbreviations,” she says. “There are so many abbreviations you really can’t always assume people will know what they are.”
Twitter power users can be particular offenders with regards to that rule. Despite the fact that Twitter’s user base has broadened substantially during the past six months, the majority of its users descend from a technical background. Depending on how your follower list has diversified, people might not know a lot of the Twitter lingo.
“I had people asking me what are these “#” signs,” Daffron says, referring to Hashtags, which Twitter users employ to categorize topics, such as #sanfrancisco. “By writing things that are more obscure to new users, you essentially block them out.”
Take Your Time
Twitter allows you to publish information instantly. The open field to tweet a message sits in your web-browser or in an app on your desktop. Since it’s such a short message, the natural inclination is to post away without much thought. Much like you’d proofread an important e-mail message, you should consider sitting on a Tweet, Fitton says.
“Don’t feel shy that, even though they’re short, they [tweets] can be a lot work,” Fitton says. “If you take your time, you will most likely put more thought into it. Thoughtful tweets are more likely to be appreciated.”
Due to the fact a tweet must measure 140 characters, a quick writing job combined with lack of context can create misunderstandings. If you take time to not only construct the tweet, but also analyze your audience to see how it might be received, you can avoid upsetting people, Fitton says.
Tweeting Links: Headlines Matter
On Twitter, people often tweet links to their own published work, or articles that they have found relevant. In fact, so many people tweet links now that it requires a lot of work to get people to click on them. As a result, you must have a headline that sets your Tweet apart for the other stories of the day, says Stowe Boyd (@stoweboyd), a social media analyst who writes the /message blog
“It could be humorous or topical,” he says. “But you also must pare down to the absolute minimum.”
One key differentiator can be pulling a quote from a piece that might entice people to read it. For instance, if everyone knows the general news of the day on a certain topic, tweeting an article with a general headline on the topic (“Democrats Reach 60 Seats in Senate”) might not be as compelling as a new quote from President Obama or a Senator. In other words, assume people already read the nuts-and-bolts news story that first hit the wire, and show them why you read something that has greater depth or value. This approach also shows what about the article stuck out the most for you.
On Pistachio’s website, a guest blogger, Marshall Thompson, published a helpful guide, seven steps to writing a successful Twitter headline. In the piece, he includes the following guidelines: keep it short, no puns, use keywords, use hashtags, don’t consolidate stories (one tweet per story), link directly to story (not home page — don’t be a page-view monger), and don’t use subheads.
Learn from Past Tweets
Twitter’s web-based version, and its ecosystem of apps such as TweetDeck, track every time your Twitter handle appears in a tweet. After you tweet a link or make a statement, watch how your followers receive it and whether they retweet it.
In addition to following your retweets on Twitter’s search tool, other tools help you track the pervasiveness of the links you share. TweetDeck users utilize bit.ly to shorten URLs they tweet. If you visit bit.ly’s website, you can track the performance of links you tweet.
Over time, you should notice patterns for what material your followers receive well. In many cases, it will depend on the audience, which can be quite diverse. Figuring out what makes your Twitter followers click and retweet is a process Boyd calls “micro-psychographics.”
In his blog post explaining the phenomenon, Boyd observed that, based on anecdotal evidence, Twitter users respond to tweets differently. Some engage more heavily with questions or declarative sentences, while others prefer emotional prompts evincing anger or happiness.
“I have noticed very different responses to different styles of URL-ed tweets,” Boyd wrote. “And I think it has to do with the psychological makeup of the recipients of the messages, just as much as the text in the message.”
Staff Writer C.G. Lynch covers consumer and social technologies for CIO. You can follow him at @cglynch.