Don’t be like Twitter

I am a long-time user of Twitter. The microblogging platform has allowed me to connect with people around the world, learn new things and share my ideas. Although Twitter has struggled in recent years to grow, especially when compared to sites like Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat, it nevertheless maintains a solid base of users.

Twitter’s hallmark feature is that tweets are limited to 140 characters. People are forced to be pithy and to think hard about every single character they type. For example, the preceding two sentences consist of 161 characters, including spaces. They would not fit in a tweet.

When it comes to slide presentations, don't be like Twitter and expand your words; instead, keep text to a minimum

A 140-character limit is less of an issue for character-based languages such as Chinese or Japanese. For example, the word “sophistication” consists of 14 characters. In Japanese, the word is only two characters: 洗練. (Please be right, Google Translate!)

That’s a 7:1 advantage over letter-based languages that use an alphabet. The Roman (Latin), Cyrillic, Arabic and Greek alphabets are examples of such languages. Most people in the world speak a language that falls into this category. English falls into this category.

In an effort to address the issue, Twitter is considering increasing the character limit from 140 to 280. In fact, they are already testing the new format with a limited number of users.

Many people think it’s a bad idea, if for no other reason than it will give Donald Trump even more room to rant. Good point. Many others don’t like the idea for other reasons.

I am not going to lose sleep over the issue one way or the other. However, even if you welcome Twitter’s increased character limit, please resist the urge to follow suit when it comes to your slide presentations. Many presenters think that it is a good idea to add lots and lots of detail. Rarely is this case; in fact the result is usually a bloated, incomprehensible slide. Here is one extreme example. And here is another.

When it comes to slides, follow the “old” Twitter philosophy of brevity. Keep your slides simple and clean. Design them like Pablo Picasso. In my experience, the overwhelming majority of slides can be tightened, sharpened and improved by removing material instead of adding material.

Indeed, one could say the same thing about Twitter’s new, longer tweets. Jack Dorsey, Twitter’s CEO, sent out the following tweet about the new format.

Brian Barone, another Twitter user, decided to edit Dorsey’s tweet.

Twitter user simplifying a tweet from the Twitter CEO

Well, what do you know! Shorter, tighter and better.

Even Jack Dorsey had to admit it.


About John Zimmer

International speaker, presentation skills expert, lawyer, improv performer
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7 Responses to Don’t be like Twitter

  1. tatanakeyhelmitatanaki says:

    Hi John, hope you and all your family are doing great.

    Twitter is a wonderful tool to actually make yourself aware whether you can explain/pitch your idea. Now it is not that any more. We have a saying in Arabic (خير الكلام ما قل ودل) which means brevity is the soul of wit. (I officially blame Google Translate if it is wrong!!)

    Thanks for sharing John,

    Safe Regards,


    • John Zimmer says:

      Shokran, ya Helmi. We have the same saying in English. I also like the Arabic saying that if speech is silver, then silence is golden. Hope all is well with you.

  2. Interesting parallel with Twitter. As they say, less is more.

    I was surprised that Brian Barone’s version was over 140 characters. So here’s my sub-140 take:

    A small change, but big for us. 140 limit was arbitrary, based on 160 for SMS. Proud of team: solved a problem, yet kept our essence!

    P.S. This week I saw Jean-Luc Doumont speak in Sydney, and was inspired. I found myself agreeing with everything he said. (Well almost – rather than using something like PowerPoint to create his slides, he uses TeX (or LaTeX), which seems like a lot of effort, and at times his text can be a bit hard to read.) Anyway, his content was excellent, and you can watch a similar talk of his online.

    • John Zimmer says:

      Hi Craig. Good job on the tweet shortening. I didn’t bother to count Barone’s but because of Dorsey’s comment, it was too good not to use. I have seen other journalists work the tweet down as well. I will have a look at Doumont’s video. Thanks for sharing.

  3. James Reeves says:

    SInce you can’t keep your obnoxious left-wing politics out of your blog, I’m unsubscribing. It’s not very good anyway.

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