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How Not to Tweet Twaddle

Dennis Meredith‘s career as a science communicator has included service at some of the country’s leading research universities, including MIT, Caltech, Cornell, Duke and the University of 9780199732050Wisconsin. His newest book, Explaining Research: How to Reach Key Audiences to Advance Your Work is the first comprehensive communications guidebook for scientists, engineers, and physicians. Meredith explains how to use websites, blogs, videos, webinars, old-fashioned lectures, news releases, and lay-level articles to reach key audiences, emphasizing along the way that a strong understanding of the audience in question will allow a more effective communication tailored to a unique background and set of needs. In the original post below Meredith looks at how to best use twitter.

While the Explaining Research Web site includes an extensive list of tools to enhance Twitter, there have been major questions about how people can best use Twitter and those tools to their professional benefit. Fortunately, communication experts are now beginning to come up with excellent guidance. Understanding Twitter is particularly important because it has become a ubiquitous communication tool since its launch a mere four years ago. Each minute, about 30,000 Twitter tweets sluice through the Internet, according to the nifty tracking service TweeSpeed. Perhaps like many of you, I’m a Twitter twit—reluctant to leap into this raging torrent without knowing how to “swim,” that is, how to use Twitter to communicate responsibly and advance my work. Although I have a Twitter account, @explainresearch, so far my only tweets have been feeds from my blog The Research Explainer.

Despite, or perhaps because of, its ubiquity, there is an active debate over the value of Twitter. For example, journalist James Harkin declared in an article in the Guardian that social network sites have “created only a deafening banality.” And New Yorker writer George Packer declared on his blog that Twitter is “crack for media addicts.” New York Times reporter Nick Bilton countered such assertions on his blog, citing Twitter’s extraordinary utility in uses from companies scheduling freight deliveries, to an astronaut tweeting answers to science questions from the space station, to Iranians reporting atrocities by their government. And Bryan Howland points out in his essay that, like television, Twitter can be both mindless babble and a useful information tool. What’s more, he says, one’s person’s babble can be another’s information gold.

Indeed, in Explaining Research, I point out that Twitter can provide useful, instant communication among people who are members of a group, field or center, or attending an event— as well as enabling communication with broader audiences such as the public.

One major problem is distinguishing your tweets from the 40 percent that are “pointless babble,” as a recent study found. Also, you need to decide whether you should tweet about your own experiences or concentrate on being an information source. A Rutgers study showed that some 80 percent of twitterers tweet mainly about their own lives. The study dubbed such Twitterers “meformers,” as opposed to “informers” who share information like links to news articles. The Rutgers study findings provide the first rule of successful tweeting: be an informer. The study found that the informers had significantly more friends and followers than did the meformers. Twitter itself has recognized the value of being an informer rather than a meformer by recently changing the basic question above its posting box from “What are you doing?” to “What’s happening?”

Besides attracting lots of followers, a major sign of tweeting success is getting “retweeted,” that is, having other people pass along your tweets. Perhaps the best set of tips for maximizing retweeting comes from viral marketing scientist Dan Zarella. His “Nine Scientifically Proven Ways to Get Retweeted on Twitter” were outlined by Fast Company writer Dan Macsai. Zarella’s tips are

* Use links to other sources in your tweets, and shorten those links with bit.ly, which yields particularly short URLs
* Use words and phrases that encourage retweeting, such as “you,” twitter,” “retweet,” and “please”
* Avoid idle chitchat in your tweets. Such chitchat is marked by words such as “game,” “going,” “haha,” and “lol”
* Use more “intellectual” words rather than simple ones
* Use punctuation marks such as colons and periods, but not semicolons
* Offer breaking news with your tweets
* Use proper nouns and third-person verbs, as is done in headlines
* Don’t insert negative emotions, sensations, swear words, or self-references
* Tweet in the afternoon and late in the week

A potentially troublesome Twitter issue—which you can actually turn to your advantage—is tweeting by audience members during your talks. While you might find this backchannel chatter disconcerting, speaking coach Olivia Mitchell, explains in her free ebook How to present with Twitter (and other backchannels) how to benefit from such tweeting and harness it to enhance your talks. She suggests simple steps to avoid being roasted by tweeters and respond to negative tweets; how to build a “Twitter team;” and how to use Twitter and other backchannels to encourage audience participation. There are even tools that enable you to tweet from within your PowerPoint slides and monitor the backchannel. Communication expert Denise Graveline also offers some excellent tips on using Twitter, including how to learn from Twitter hecklers.

As experts continue to offer such insights, swimming in the Twitter stream will undoubtedly become a more comfortable and productive experience.

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