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Salzman: Why You Need To Twitter

Thursday, 12 Feb 2009 | 1:17 PM ET

How’s this for blatant hypocrisy: a thousand-word article on the trend of writing short.

I stated my point recently via Twitter: “Love the concept of word economy. It's time to downsize. Less is more, for words too. Short and simple says much more.” But right now I want to take up a little more space to argue the case for the power of brevity.

First, a few words for intellectual snobs who think only diatribes deserve respect: Of course Russian novels and great operas and even TV miniseries (awards-season darling “John Adams,” for instance) are worth the time if you have it. And the New Yorker is generally a fascinating read. But, there are times when a story (or film or piece of music) feels endless simply because the writer (or director or composer) is too enamored with the work to break it down to a more digestible form.

Any fool can ramble on.

It takes real intelligence and discipline to succinctly express something worthwhile. Brevity is not only the soul of wit, it’s the key to communicating something memorable that really sticks. Some of infamous shorty Napoleon’s best-known words are a brief and sexy message he sent from Egypt to his wife Josephine: “Ne te lave pas. J’arrive.” (“Don’t wash. I’m coming home.”) American jazz icon Miles Davis was a master of short: “Don't play what's there, play what's not there.”

Short is what hooks you. Pop songs grab you in the first 30 seconds. In a culture of less-is-more, short challenges us to make the content count. Even Simon Prosser of Hamish Hamilton, the U.K. publisher of recent long-form fiction bestsellers from Zadie Smith, Dave Eggers and Kiran Desai says, “The short story form is better suited to the demands of modern life than the novel.”

Short is what is happening now.

Rapid cell-phone texting (using up to 160 characters, often tapped on tiny QWERTY keyboards) has become a crucial life skill. On January 25, the eve of Chinese New Year, Beijing’s 16.2 million cell phone users sent an average of 40 text messages each, or nearly 700 million messages—that’s in one day, in one city.

While text messaging will continue to spread like wildfire as developing nations fully grasp the technology, tweeting is what’s now blowing the roof off the messaging trend. It took a while for the world to understand Twitter. But it has risen to prominence over the past few months—not least because it’s capable of disseminating big news fast, and because it allows users a global social networking capability that texting doesn’t. A tweeter signs up for a Twitter account online, then as often as he or she likes, answers the question “What are you doing?” using up to 140 characters.

Twitter is accessible via the web or an application on many handheld devices, and also accepts messages from SMS, Facebook, IM and others. Though conversations can be had one-on-one via Twitter, they can also be linked to much larger exchanges.

Much in the way blogging has given citizen reporters and everyman commentators an audience, Twitter puts news-breaking power in the hands of people on the street. It doesn’t take a seasoned wordsmith to turn 140 characters. It doesn’t take a professional photographer to snap a cell phone picture. Tweeters have been able to scoop professional journalists by blasting short messages directly from a news-breaking moment.

When terrorists attacked Mumbai last November, many on the scene fed real-time updates via Twitter. As Britain’s Daily Telegraph reported, “Mere moments after the first shots were fired, Twitter users in Mumbai were providing eyewitness accounts of the unfolding drama. Tweets were posted at a rate of around 70 every five seconds when the news of the tragedy first broke, according to some estimates.”

On January 15, when a US Airways plane made an emergency landing on the Hudson River, tweeter Janis Krums broke the news, uploading the first photo to TwitPic from his iPhone . His caption read: “There's a plane in the Hudson. I'm on the ferry going to pick up the people. Crazy.”

But it’s not just everyday folks who are embracing the viral power of Twitter.

Celebs, lawmakers and business leaders are using short messages to talk directly to the people. President Obama is the most-followed tweeter on Twitter, with well over 225,000 receiving his updates. His celebrated social media campaign strategy culminated in four “get out the vote” tweets on November 4, followed by a big thank you on November 5: “We just made history. All of this happened because you gave your time, talent and passion. All of this happened because of you. Thanks”. Members of Congress like Republican Bob Inglis are using Twitter as a quick, zero-cost medium for reporting back to citizens—even from behind-closed-door meetings with the President. Pro cyclist, cancer survivor and LiveStrong founder Lance Armstrong tweets about his business meetings and bike rides, while Web 2.0 entrepreneur Kevin Rose of Digg.com tweets about everything under the sun.

The short-messaging format brings far-flung people together around a shared interest. At Porter Novelli, we reached out to our global network for an agency-wide, around-the-world Twitter conversation leading up to President Obama’s Inauguration. Colleagues worldwide shared local concerns, observations and celebrations: from “Zimbabwe must be high on Obama's agenda. Mugabe must go. What else should BO urgently do?” to “Slovak press is mixed in its reviews of Obama. Some call him Messiah and call to act now for Gaza and EU vs. Russia dispute” to “at the google ball. Everyone is full of hope...and Vodka”.

We found the experience so promising that we’ve decided to sponsor the upcoming international Shorty Awards, which recognize individuals who’ve had outstanding impact using short-form content via Twitter. Founders Sawhorse Media opened the Shorties to nominations in December, and within two months it’s become the premiere Twitter event. Awards were given out February 11th in New York City with some recipients appearing in person, flying in from as far as Australia and Russia, and some appearing via tweet.

I’ll also be watching the Twestival today, a global festival organized by Twitter users, including my London-based colleague Tim Hoang (in fact, a co-founder), harnessing the power of social media for social change. The goal is to raise money for the nonprofit Charity:Water, to bring safe, clean drinking water to developing countries. (They have already raised more than a million dollars and the Tweets are going strong.) More than 100 cities hosted 200 live events, bringing tweeters together in person and proving the impact individual messages and individual donations can have on the greater good.

The point of all this: Short may be sweet, but it’s much more than that. Short is smart and powerful. It sparks conversations, connects thinkers, shrinks distances and engenders change.

    • Your Digital Life: Try Twitter

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Marian Salzman is the Chief Marketing Officer at Porter Novelli, a global PR company. She is one of the industry’s best-known trend spotters and branding experts. You can find her popular blog at www.pnintelligentdialogue.com

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