Very often, when I’m engaging people on Twitter (), I think of my undergrad journalism professor, a crusty but kindly man named Charlie Ball.
“Class!” Charlie would bark at all of us, and our fingers would collectively pause over the keyboards of the electric typewriters that passed for a journalism lab 20 years ago. Charlie would wave an unfortunate someone’s liberally marked-up news manuscript in our direction and bellow, “This is what I mean! Never use a 10-cent word when a nickel word will do!”
What Charlie meant by that is that news journalism works best when it’s simple and direct, at least in the story’s lead sentences. And simplicity (and other tenets of good journalism — like brevity, and clarity, and immediacy) are now cornerstones of how many businesses, brands and individuals communicate on Twitter.
Here’s how some of the mantras from my undergrad days now inform the best tweets.
1. Make every word count
In traditional news journalism, and on Twitter, you only have so much space. On Twitter, of course, it’s a mere 140 characters. As I learned in journalism school, writing short is a lot harder than it looks. It’s a lot more work to choose your words wisely, and be concise, than it is to ramble on luxuriously. For example, I love how Tim Siedell communicates so much in a single tweet:
Keeping a tweet really short – like close to 85-100 characters – also makes your tweet more “Retweet Friendly,” since it allows a little wiggle room for forwarding.
2. Keep it simple
Like Charlie’s directive to avoid “10-cent words,” the best news reporters tell a story simply and clearly. Similarly, don’t try to cram too much information into a single tweet. On Twitter, less is often more.
Also: Link directly to blogs or other online sources, and always link to the full story, rather than trying to juice up page views by, for example, linking to the home page. Shorten URLs through bit.ly or similar services. Most Twitter clients will usually condense your links, but I like bit.ly’s rich click-through and retweet stats.
Finally, avoid the temptation to fit more into a tweet by the liberal use of abbreviations. Such shorthand might maximize your character count, but they make your tweet read like a teenager’s text message.
3. Provide context
News reporters do this by plugging in some of the back story on any given news item. On Twitter, offer context by using keywords and hashtags, when appropriate, so that readers can more easily get the gist of a conversation, thread, or topic. Like this:
4. Lead with the good stuff
In journalism, the “inverted pyramid” style places the most important information at the top of any story, and then the ensuing narrative explains and expands on it. In other words, the first paragraph should contain enough information to give the reader a solid overview of the entire story. Approach sharing links or information on Twitter in a similar manner, giving the strongest and most compelling bit in the tweet, and then link to the rest of the story elsewhere.
5. Write killer headlines
Headlines “sell” a news story or a blog post much like a great tweet invites a reader to click. Author tweets that are short, punchy, and are compelling, either because they tell the reader precisely what you’re offering (”How to…” or “27 Ways…”) or because they’re clever or funny.
I like how John Haydon tweets a punchy headline and then adds his take on why it’s a good read:
…or because they are clever or funny:
6. Graphics expand on the story
A good image or graphic complements a news story. Similarly, a picture on Twitter tells a story with far more impact:
7. People make things interesting
News reporters often focus on how people are affected by a given situation or event. On Twitter, it’s also the people that keep it interesting. That means talking to (or “@ing”) folks liberally, as well as adopting a conversational tone and community spirit.
And this applies even when you are representing a brand:
8. Consider the reader
Journalists spend a lot of time coming up with the right angle for a story. On Twitter, be similarly thoughtful in your approach. The immediacy of Twitter might tempt you to dash off a tweet with little forethought. But if you respect your audience of followers similar to the way journalists consider their readers, you’ll spend more time thinking about what to tweet, than you will actually doing it. Believe me, your followers will appreciate your efforts.