How to Write Tweets Using the Burma Shave Model
Posted By Cynthia Hartwig on February 20, 2013
If you want to learn how to write tweets, it helps to understand that tweets are a lot like billboards. People travel the information highway that is Twitter, almost as fast as they do on I-90, and you have one chance to get your message across before they speed off to the next exit. That’s why Burma-Shave signs are a better model than War and Peace.
Clarity with cleverness is rewarding.
Everybody loved the old Burma-Shave highway signs because they were fun and easy to get. You didn’t have to puzzle out what they meant; you read the first line and got the punch line a mile or so later. If you think of the tweet stream as a mini-information highway, always rolling, it makes sense to follow the same “few words/clear payoff” approach.
Aim for 6-11 words (the word limit for outdoor or bus boards) + link.
In my career as a creative director, no copywriter worth her paycheck would dare come into my office with more than 11 words on a billboard. These days, tweets with more than 10 words raise my red flag.
People just can’t take in that much information with a moving target. Burma-Shave signs typically had only 2-3 words per sign; and they had lots of acreage between them which encouraged audience participation as people in the same car would guess what the next sign a few miles down the road might say. Twitter is slightly more forgiving, though I believe shorter tweets work better in a constantly updating sea of words.
Don’t write blind.
Beginning tweeters often make the mistake of writing “blind” or obscurely, as if being dark and mysterious makes a communication more interesting. (Beginning fiction writers often do the same thing.) Au contraire: tweets that have no punchline are annoying. Ask yourself if your tweet’s meaning is clear and if it isn’t, go back and try again. I love this beautiful and yet-so-simple definition of the word “dystopia” from a fellow word player on the Twitter game called @artwiculate.
Write tweets with a wink and a smile.
People love to be entertained; that was one of the by-words of the Burma-Shave signs. Follow @RexHuppke, @Andyborowitz or @SarahSilverstein to see comic masters at work on Twitter. If you can make someone laugh, you reward someone for following you. A smile is pretty darn sticky.
Why else would we remember Burma-Shave signs that had their heyday in the 1940s?
PS Read Grow Your Twitter Following with Great Writing About… an Office Vasectomy for more on the topic of Twitter wit.