Want to Twitter Better? Diversify Your Pronouns

One of my favorite Joe Pulizzi sayings is “it’s not about you.” For the most part, he’s talking to marketers, trying to get them to focus on the information their customers need rather than what the marketers most want to talk about: themselves. Journalists generally don’t see this as their own problem. After all, their role is to point towards other people. But as a new study suggests, the story is different on Twitter.  There, they mostly point to themselves. It’s a pronoun problem: too much “I” and not enough “you” and “they.”

Pew study found few mainstream media outlets retweet Back in August, I did an informal study of one B2B publisher’s editorial use of Twitter, and found that most tweets tended to be promotional (linking to in-house sources) rather than curatorial (linking elsewhere) or conversational (engaging with users). Now a Pew Research Center study of 13 mainstream media outlets finds an even more dramatic excess of promotion. The organizations studied included The New York Times, NPR, ABC News, The Huffington Post, and Fox News. More than 90% of their tweets with links were to their own sources.  While only 7% of their tweets linked to outside sources, even fewer were conversational in nature: just 2% asked readers for input, and only 1% were retweets.

The causes and implications of these findings have been well covered by Megan Garber, Mathew Ingram, and Ethan Klapper, among others (if I missed other good ones, why not note them in the comments below?).

I’ll just add this suggestion: when you tweet, try to balance your pronouns. Make sure you match your I—links to your own stories—with equal measures of they—what others, including your competitors, have said—and you—reacting to and soliciting information from your readers and followers.

Bloggers: Feel Free to Repeat Yourself


Big ideas justify repetition

Imagine: After days of writer’s block, you’re suddenly inspired to write a long and insightful blog post. You’ve found the perfect illustration, and your headline is brilliant. You’re crushing it. Then, just before you click the publish button, a small blip of doubt appears on your radar. Somehow, what you’ve written sounds so familiar.

In a flash you remember: you’ve already covered this topic. The words are  different, the examples are new, but the case you’re making is more or less the same.

So what do you do now? As I’ve suggested before, a concern that someone else has already made your point shouldn’t stop you from publishing. But what if the person who made the point was you?

Fear not: There may be very good reasons to publish anyway.

In the right circumstances, there is a strong rationale for repeating yourself. But before we leap blindly into the upside of repetition, let’s consider the downside.

1. You may be subtracting value, not adding it. Once in a while, the first time you express an idea, it’s so well put that any subsequent efforts diminish the impact of the original. If you can’t improve on it or extend it, just link to it.

2. You may be using your desire to repeat yourself as an excuse. You may have other topics or ideas that you know you need to address, but it’s hard work. Going back to your old idea is so much easier. If that’s the case, put it on hold and focus on the new ones. The old one will always be there if you need it.

3. You may lack new ideas. Maybe you need to get out more. If you aren’t actively engaging with your community by reading, asking, and listening, your ideas, old or new, won’t be relevant.

If your urge to repeat yourself survives these three arguments against it, take heart. There are at least three equally compelling arguments in favor of it:

1. If you’ve forgotten what you said before, so has your reader. So say it again. What makes ideas grow on people is repetition. One of the findings of Edelman’s 2011 “Trust Barometer” is, as Krishna De puts it, that “the more we hear something, the more likely we are to believe it—59% of respondents will believe the information they receive if they hear it 3 – 5 times.”

Last week, Ardath Albee suggested that even more repetition may be required for maximum retention: “Here’s the dirty little secret about repetition: It takes 5 – 12 repetitions of an idea to make it stick.”

2. You’re not repeating, you’re refining. Most ideas aren’t hermetically sealed packages of eternal truth. Instead, they evolve and grow. The blog format is ideal not only for documenting this growth process, but also for enhancing it through interactions with and feedback from others.

Do all those earlier iterations of an idea in a blog become disposable the moment the latest version is published? Not at all. In fact, for me, one of the glories of the blog format is the way it allows readers to go back and follow the development of an idea over time. In blogs like Joe Pulizzi’s Junta42 blog or Jeff Jarvis’s BuzzMachine, to cite two very different examples, going back to their earliest posts and reading forward through time reveals the detail and depth in their ideas that wouldn’t exist without repetition and reworking.

3. Your idea is so important that it’s all you need. There’s nothing wrong with one-trick ponies if the trick is really good. Long ago, the philosopher Isaiah Berlin wrote a short book on Tolstoy called The Hedgehog and the Fox. The title was inspired by an ancient Greek fragment that says “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.”

The insight Berlin drew from this was that there are two kinds of thinkers. One, the fox, gets his brilliance from the many different ideas he throws out for consideration. The brilliance of the other, the hedgehog, is based on one very big, complex idea that he devotes himself to exploring and explaining. If you’re a hedgehog, repetition is an asset, not a liability.

There are probably more than these three reasons not to fear repetition in your blog posts. If you can add one in the comments here, please do. But otherwise, feel free to paraphrase Walt Whitman and repeat after me:  “Do I repeat myself? Very well then I repeat myself.”