Twitter offers some interesting possibilities for teaching business writing skills. The 140-character limit forces writers to distill their messages to the essentials, and planning a multi-tweet message can expand this practice in clarity by encouraging writers to think through a unified sequence of points that support a primary headline tweet. Presentation expert Cliff Atkinson suggested the Rule of Four Tweets as a tool for planning presentations, based on the realization that many presentation audiences now use Twitter as a live backchannel during presentations.
By writing four short messages (one top-level summary and three major supporting points), a speaker can make sure a presentation has a single, tightly focused main idea with a sufficient number of distinct supporting points. And then by including those four message points as Twitter friendly statements during the presentation, the speaker makes it easy for audience members to spread the word by tweeting those points to their followers.
We've begun implementing variations on this idea as student exercises in our business communication texts—for a variety of document types, in addition to presentations. Conveying the main idea of a document or presentation in no more than 140 characters helps students verify that they've really thought through their purpose, beyond just a descriptive headline. Supporting that main idea with three strong supporting messages helps ensure adequate support for the main idea. For all four tweets, the character limit requires careful writing and revision in order to convey meaningful ideas clearly and concisely.
The communication tasks don't have to involve messages that would normally be delivered via Twitter, either. It's the experience of expressing a set of ideas within the limits of the medium that makes the approach so appealing. Sending actual tweets isn't required, of course, although if a class is set up with private Twitter accounts, students can send live tweets without worrying about the activity being visible to the outside world. As alternatives, students can e-mail their four messages to the instructor, post them on a class blog, or include them on slides in a presentation. If you've been experimenting with Twitter as a writing medium in your classes, we would love to hear about your experiences.