Leading themed discussions on Twitter

In August 2015 I was part of a group of seabirders that led themed discussions on Twitter as part of the lead up to the 2nd World Seabird Conference in Cape Town, South Africa.


When I tell most people that I led a discussion on Twitter, even those colleagues that are in their late 20’s to late 30’s, many look at me slightly confused. Some are on Twitter and immediately understand what an interactive space it can be, but most are either on Twitter but haven’t really figured out how to use it professionally yet, or have signed up, but haven’t contributed anything yet. And, there are some that still claim that Twitter is not for them.

Some tips for leading a successful Twitter discussion:

  1. Visuals are great, but prep them before hand. Graphics and images are great tools for communicating ideas. This is also true on Twitter. When you are leading a discussion you want to think about what images you are likely to use. Just like you prepare a slideshow before a talk, prepare all the images you want to use in one accessible place. Because large images can’t be uploaded to Twitter, prepping images may also mean scaling down there size. Do this all before hand so that you can easily flow from tweet to tweet, with pictures without having to stop and fumble over where numerous folders and files. The picture below I knew I would want to talk about so I made sure that it was ready and easy to post. It shows a cigarette butt (the top most piece) that Alex Bond (@thelabandfield) found in a project that we worked on together examining plastics in seabirds from Sable Island (you can see the paper here). cigarette
  2. Prepare your main speaking points. Again, just like giving a traditional presentation, prepare your speaking points. Think about the main topics that you think you should cover. Just like a talk, start off very broad to give those with limited experience in the topic the ability to understand the basics before you jump right into them. I also posted a summary of the session and some questions that people wanting to learn more could access. This helped me form my speaking points (you can see them here).
  3. Be flexible. Above I say organize, here I say be flexible, some may be thinking, well which is it. I like to go by a strategy I learned in teacher’s college; over planning is better than under planning. Plan enough speaking points, activities and questions that you can fill the entire time (plus about 15% in case time goes faster then you think) without any one else jumping in with questions. This makes sure that you won’t be left hanging with nothing to talk about. But likely, there will be questions. And if they are on topic and it is what people are interested, go with them. Getting messages through to people is easier when you are addressing concerns that they have brought up. Sticking to a script and not recognizing or responding to direct questions is one way to get an audience to check out as it displays that you either think it is not important to talk about, or you don’t care about other peoples concerns.

So, what are the benefits you may be asking, well here are just a few:

  1. It’s interactive. For those who are new to Twitter, it may seem like you are just putting ideas out, and not really getting any interaction, but a discussion that is organized and publicized can attract all kinds of people. You can pose questions that people respond to. Others may just jump in and share examples. Others may post pictures. For example, one person posted this visualization of plastic garbage islands in the oceans during the talk which was a great talking point. nasa
  2. You can increase and widen your audience. By tagging discussions you can draw in new followers. I talked about seabirds and plastics in the session that I lead, but tagged in as many tweets as I could remember to do the word #plastic. This means that when people search the word ‘plastic’ in Twitter all those tweets may come up. Additionally, you can also increase those following you. During and after the themed discussion I lead my followers increased by about 30 people. This may not seem like a lot, but it is 30 more people that my tweets are going out to, and then might also retweet those as well.
  3. You often learn something new. All kinds of people on are Twitter, and lots of people follow a real menagerie of accounts (I know I do!). Because of the nature of Twitter, you can’t possibly follow everything that is related to your work, and see every post that is related. But in these discussion sessions often people retweet things that are related. For example, I have thought about an app that would allow us to track plastic-seabird interactions and talked about this on Twitter in the discussion. Then someone else pointed out this post, which I had not seen, but is a great tool for people to track ocean debris.padi
  4. The discussion often keeps on going long after the allotted hour time limit. The themed discussion that I did was an hour long, but many of the tweets got retweeted for hours afterwards, and some even days and up to a week later. This meant that the messages were still swirling around the Twittersphere, long after I had actively stopped tweeting. Now this can be said about a number of communication mediums, but one of the great things about Twitter, is that people can still ask you questions about the topic carrying the discussion even further.

There are more benefits to undertaking this type of communication work, but in order for this communication strategy to be most effective, I won’t drone on. So, if you are experienced in Twitter, or new, I highly recommend leading a discussion like this one. You may find it cumbersome at first, but if you try it out you may find that it is another powerful tool in your communication toolbox. For more on the themed discussion session you can see my summary of the discussion here, and the storify version of the discussion that I led here.

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