Selling yourself with social media

Whether it’s email, chat, or a social network, word count isn’t just a matter of style—it’s often a technical requirement. Add to that the expectation that your online voice should sound conversational, engaging, or even funny, and communicating online may be the biggest (and certainly most frequently encountered) writing challenge that we face in business today, say the experts at HBR. Here are some guidelines that can help make those messages productive and satisfying—rather than a liability.

Relax. The biggest difference between online writing and traditional business communications is that most online interaction is a lot less formal—especially social network updates and text messages. If you write tweets that sound like traditional news release headlines, you’ll come off as boring, stuffy, or pompous. So lighten up, and try to write in a conversational tone. It helps to actually read your messages out loud, or to dictate them into your phone in the process of posting.

But don’t relax too much. While most professionals are more likely to err on the side of formality when it comes to their online presence, some folks go too far the other way. It is fine to be silly or profane in your Facebook feed, particularly if you only friend people you know well or limit your Facebook updates to a limited list of people. But on any network where you’re posting to a broader audience, aim for a level of professionalism that’s equivalent to the way you’d speak with a group of trusted colleagues: relaxed but respectful. That doesn’t mean you can’t swear on Twitter, but that’s probably something you should only do if you’re the kind of person who sometimes swears in meetings, but think it through before you post it.

Calibrate your voice to your platform. You approach a meeting with your immediate team differently from a talk to a 500-person audience. In the same vein, you need to calibrate your voice to different kinds of online platforms and audiences. A businesslike tone may be appropriate on LinkedIn, but it may seem out of place on Facebook or an online chat. Spend some time reading and listening to any new network you join before you jump in, so you get a feel for the tone that’s appropriate—and pay particular attention to the tone used by the people you admire, or who seem to get a positive response to their posts.

Embrace humour…cautiously. Particularly if you’re trying to build any kind of following on a social network, humor has a place in your online business writing. Your best bet is gentle self-deprecation (but nowhere near the uncomfortable line of self-loathing), good-natured cracks about broad topics like sports, parenting, or the weather (or even politics, if you don’t need to worry about alienating people with different views), or funny Internet memes (as long as they’re not offensive). If in doubt, don’t post it, forward it, or share it.

Easy on the acronyms. Acronyms and abbreviations are extremely common online, particularly on Twitter, where the 140-character limit means you’ll often see terms like HT (hat tip, to acknowledge a source), MT (modified tweet) or FTW (“for the win!”, a celebratory term). This kind of shorthand has its place, but use too many LOLs and OMGs, and you sound like a teenager.

Be nicer online than you are offline. Aim for online communication that makes you sound about 30 per cent nicer than you actually are. Why? Because we’re notoriously bad at judging how what we write—or rather, what we intend to write—will sound to the person reading it (and they’ll probably assume it’s worse than you intended). A good rule of thumb is to read anything you write out loud before you post or send it, particularly if it’s a challenging or controversial communication (ideally, you’ll set those aside for 24 hours, show them to another person first, and/or take the conversation offline). If you aim to be nicer online than you are face to face, you’ll probably avoid the accidental lapses in tone that can cause real relationship and business problems.

Beware of bragging or groaning. Many people post a lot of brags (“Just got off the phone with an F500 company that is so excited to be working with me!”) or complaints (“Another day of mind-numbing meetings.”) The occasional victory cheer is totally warranted, particularly when you’re sharing good news—but try to keep that to one brag a month, and try to share your news in a way that offers some value to your readers, like telling them how to register for the conference that just invited you to keynote. Complaints have their place too, but generally only if you’re asking for concrete support—which can be as direct as saying “I’m having a tough day, please send me something funny to cheer me up”—or if you’re being funny about your kvetching (and get someone to validate that you’re actually being funny).

Monitor yourself. At least every month or so, flip back through a few weeks of your social network updates to see if you like the overall tone of your profile. While most people see your updates one at a time, the moments when they really count—like when a prospective employer or client is checking you out—will be moments when someone is looking at your social media presence as a whole. So make sure you’re comfortable with the overall way you’re presenting yourself. You can also get some useful feedback by using a free tool like AnalyzeWords, which tells you the tone of the words you use most often on Twitter.

Remember that the Internet is forever. Every time I think we’ve all learned this one, an online scandal turns up ill-advised emails or tweets from someone who really should have known better. So I’m going to say it one more time: if you write it down, you should be prepared to see it on the front page of a newspaper. Even when you’re corresponding with someone via email, think about what would happen if this email got leaked. That doesn’t mean you can’t email your colleagues about confidential business dealings, but be sure that you can live with whatever you’ve written—so don’t write down anything that would sound small-minded or unethical (particularly if taken out of context). And when you’re posting on social networks, which are out in the open, assume that anyone can see anything—including your boss, your mother, your clients, and your kids.

Lead with your key point. Online readers have notoriously short attention spans. Whether you’re sending an email or posting to a social network, make sure that any actionable items, or any questions you want addressed, appear at the very top of your message. Then you can provide the context to go with that question. It’s much more effective to write, “Can you suggest a good H.R. consultant?” and then follow that with a description of what you’re looking for, than to provide a paragraph of explanation before getting to your request. If it feels ironic that I’m ending with “start with the most important point first,” take this as a case in point: getting your tone right is actually the place where people typically run into trouble online, so figuring out how structure your messages is a relatively simple task—one to tackle once you’ve got your tone down. What it comes down to is this: read your message before you send it, and if you need to, move your most important idea up to the top.

If you follow these guidelines, you’ll end up with an online voice that falls somewhere between the way you communicate face-to-face, and the way you communicate in formal documents. And that’s the very reason that online communication is so appealing, and so uniquely effective: by combining the forethought of the written word with the humanity of conversation, it lets us connect and work together in ways that were once impossible.