How to write better in 280 characters or less

Source: Pixabay

A lot of scientists are on Twitter these days. They tweet about their published work, about their life in the lab, and about the struggles of being in science.

However, it seems that a lot of the scientists are tweeting to each other. While this is not necessarily a bad thing (and a quite effective way to get a bunch of introverts to talk to each other), it clashes a little bit with the idea of Twitter being a medium for science outreach.

If you are a scientist on Twitter, you might be asking yourself: How can I communicate my research in a way that will interest different people/groups? And not just the people I’m already talking to at conferences.

Lucky for you, there is an actual science to “how do I get my tweet retweeted?”

You might be on a grant that stipulates things like “… to get relevant exposure and make the fruit of your work broadly available, outreach activities are a must.” You probably get some guidelines that are pretty “duh”: think about your core message; who is your target audience; how can you make your research catchy, concise and accurate?¹ But how to actually do all these things, you might ask.

It is important to remember that one size does not fit all (it never does!).

Especially when using social media as an outreach tool, it can be easily forgotten that people process information in different ways, so it is important to match your communication to your target audience. One way to look at this from a social psychology perspective, in which some people process information heuristically, and other more systematically².

Very briefly, heuristically refers to the person primarily focussing on the superficial aspects of the message, while systematically refers to the person thinking carefully and deliberately about the content of the message.

And while you might think that your research is the most interesting thing ever, not everybody else will think the same. And even if they do find it interesting, they might not be able to understand it.

People can’t pay attention to everything. And moreover, you know what you are talking about. You have studied it for years. Other people — however — do not.

Source: Pixabay

So when developing a piece of communication, you need to know two key things about your audience:

  1. Are they cognitively ‘able’ to process the information you want them to?
  2. Are they motivated to pay close attention to what you are telling them?

If the answer to both questions is “yes,” you are dealing with an audience that can process information systematically. If one of the answers is “no,” you have a heuristic audience.

And here’s the stinker. The default audience is “low” in ability (as defined as knowledge about that specific topic, not overall) and “low” in motivation³.

  1. Unless you are speaking to an audience comprising entirely of highly educated people, such as colleagues, experts or policymakers, there will be at least one person in your audience that is not an expert on what you are talking about. And remember that in the case of Twitter, the audience could be everybody.
  2. A lot of research may seem abstract or irrelevant to the general public. If it doesn’t affect them directly, why should they care?

It all comes down to this: most people will be processing anything you try to communicate to them mostly heuristically, or at least at first. You’d be the same, I’m sure. This means that the superficial aspects of whatever you are presenting are very important.

  1. Is it from a credible source?
    You may dislike putting the Dr in front of your name but it does make you sound a lot more like you know what you’re talking about.
  2. If using graphics/doing a presentation: colours, font, layout, … are all important!

So if you are tweeting about your research, and you want it to reach more people than just your colleagues, there are a few things you should think of:

  • : now is your time to “brag” about your degree. You are an expert in your field, it’s okay to say so. It demonstrates both your expertise and your trustworthiness.
  • : though probably more important when communicating in person, do you really want to be remembered as “that slob” or do you want to be remembered as “that scientist”. It shouldn’t matter, but sadly, it does.
  • : the more arguments you have to back up your claim, the more you look like you know what you are talking about!
  • : you get 280 characters in a tweet, but you can also create a thread nowadays. Stick to the core message though, if you drift off into the details, people will lose interest.
  • : if you construct your claims logically, then it will be easier for people to follow your train of thought.
  • : do other people agree with you? Have they found data that supports your findings? It all makes what you say more believable.
  • : if you use a graphics (or if you are reading this to make better presentations and not just tweets, or to make video-content), pay attention to the colours you use, the fonts (no Comic Sans!), the speed with which the images load (depends on their size)…

Luckily, if you are aiming for an expert audience, the list is a bit shorter (though you will notice some overlap).

In general, the quality of your content is very important.

People will think carefully about what you say or write, so make it convincing. Make sure the claims are backed up by evidence that is both unbiased and extensive. Your claims should be detailed, and supported by other research (citations!). And finally, make sure your claims are logical. Give only the information that is necessary, but all the information that is sufficient to back up your story.

Now, there you go, you know what to do, so get on Twitter and tweet away!


This post is based on the “Strategies for Effective Media Outreach” session by Dr Nehama Lewis (Board Member, MCAA) at ESOF2018 Toulouse, France

³ Petty (1986) “Communication and persuasion: central and peripheral routes to attitude change.” Springer-Verlag, New York.

You can read more about the social psychology that was briefly touched on here:

About the author

Valerie Bentivegna has recently completed a PhD in Life Sciences at the University of Dundee, where she was part of the MSCA ITN project PHOQUS. She currently works for a chemical engineering startup in Seattle, and has an interest in science communication and informal education.

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