Next month marks my fifth anniversary on Twitter. I feel like I owe a lot to the humble tweet. It's helped me find more readers for my blog. I've learned a lot about social media and cause marketing. I've even made some great friends on Twitter - some of whom I've actually met.
Every tweet calls for words that are clear, direct, active and short. The practice has spilled over into my writing and blogging, to my public speaking and even to my PowerPoint slides.
Not everyone agrees that Twitter is a positive force in modern language. The actor Ralph Fiennes has complained that Twitter has all but ruined language and laments "a world of truncated sentences." Others like Bill Keller have concluded that Twitter makes us forgetful and just sound dumb.
Even if we concede that Bill and Ralph are right - which I don't think they are - the situation outside of Twitter is far, far worse, and is a greater threat to the English language.
Sadly, the people I generally work with, marketing and communication professionals who should be word ninjas, and nonprofits that should be testing the limits of humanizing language, are the worse offenders.
A marketing executive said last week that a company had "differentiated [itself] from the competition and given it an edge to communicating brand values during the holidays and amid a struggling economy.” At 146 characters, this sentence would not have survived the Twitter word grinder. Perhaps a better, clearer alternative is "The business has stood out over the holidays because it did the right thing for people stuck in a terrible job market." [118 characters, a better length for retweeting on Twitter].
Bloated language is similar to highly processed fast foods with their chemicals and miscellaneous animal parts: you can't call it real food. And like our poor food choices, these words don't nourish, feed or fill us. They're empty calories, and leave our readers and listeners unsatisfied.
Thankfully, Twitter is the farmer's market of language. Selection is limited, but everything is home grown and good for you.
Twitter's character limit keeps me focused on what I call Famous Last Words (FLW), the one thing you want your reader to remember more than anything else. It's just one or two sentences and there is little or no room for adjectives. Nouns and verbs do the work. And you have to play with the words to convey your meaning in the limited space. You have to cut, tighten and swap to get it right. 140 characters is a sentence scythe.
You may think that most people don't spend much time fixing their tweets. Think again. Twitter doesn't give you much of a choice.
Try it for yourself. Sign up for a Twitter account, type in a sentence or two as you would in any normal email and hit the send button. It will go nowhere because you're over the character limit. Now go back and edit the tweet so it's fewer than 140 characters but still says something. Congratulations, you have a FLW.
Before you hit the send button, read it one more time. What do you see? Nouns and verbs. Few or no adjectives and adverbs. Words that have Anglo-Saxon, not Latin, origin. Lastly, your tweet reflects your awareness that anyone can read it so you better not sound stupid.
Now you're ready to send a second tweet. Don't worry. You'll improve quickly.
The 19th century American essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson said of his writing, "I am a rocket manufacturer." Each of his sentences speaks to the reader independent of the sentence before or aft. Emerson would have been a natural on Twitter.
You probably won't be, as least not to start. But soon you'll be tweeting like a pro and writing and speaking better too. And whether it's marketing a new product, leading a company in difficult times or inspiring people to support a cause, more rocket makers are just what the world needs.