Friday, April 13, 2012

Friday Fundamentals: Bulletproof Your Bullet Points

Welcome to Friday Fundamentals, a weekly feature that focuses on basic tricks for effective communication.

This week, it's all about the list.  When you have a rundown of stuff to tell your audience, it's easy to do it wrong.  How you construct your list can either help or hinder your main objective. A bad list is often worse than no list at all.  Whether it's a menu of options, a rundown of do's and don'ts, a set of instructions, or a sequence of events, it's important to stage your telling right so your audience stays engaged.*

Recently I edited a resident's contract for a crisis shelter program.  I was handed a boilerplate document that read like a barking drill sergeant: "No smoking on the grounds.  Must participate in house meetings.  Drug or alcohol use is cause for immediate dismissal," etc.   By the time the unfortunate candidate read through  fourteen such mandates and got to the signature line, he or she was certain to feel like a criminal entering a prison.  Of course there had to be rules, and they had to be tough -- but surely there was a better way to present them!

I found the key in the shelter's mission statement.  It said that it existed to help residents reach a state of self-sufficiency.  Leveraging that statement, I added an introductory paragraph to the contract that explained the crisis center's three guiding values: to provide its residents with immediate safety, permit their day-to-day stability, and promote their eventual self-sufficiency.  Then I re-organized the rules as bullet points under those three sub-headers.  Safety, Stability, and Self-Sufficiency. After some minor editing, the list of rules now appeared calmer and clearer, reflecting the true purpose of the program and highlighting its benefits for each resident.

In fact, the list was more than a list now.  It was a call to participation.  Each rule statement became a role statement that emphasized the candidate's significance to the shelter's success.  When the staff worker reviewed the contract with potential residents, it helped them catch the program's vision right away.  Instead of signing away their freedom, they were starting a positive new chapter of their lives, and contributing to something greater than themsleves.  All because a list had been re-engineered, and made remarkable!

Do you need to construct lists for your writing projects?  Here are some things to avoid, and some things to remember, to ensure that your audience can understand, retain -- and maybe even be inspired by -- the multiple tidbits you need to convey.

Remedial Lists: What to Avoid
Remarkable Lists: What to Remember
Do NOT offer any list for publication unless you organize it first.   A list that is not clearly bucketed or sequenced may be worse than no list at all. 

1.       Gather all the items informally (don’t worry about final phrasing yet), then take a step back and ask:  "How do I want to group these?"  
Do NOT number the items on your list unless:
·         They need to be in a specific sequence (as in numbered steps on an instructions sheet);
·         You want to show ranking or priority;
·         You intend to reference them later on (“As we saw by the customer’ s reaction in Case Study #2….”).

2.       Use bullet points to add clarity and visual punch if your list is a group of non-ranked options.  Generally, readers appreciate a column of bullet points more than lists presented in paragraph format.  It’s less work for the eye, and allows for quicker scanning.  When using numbers (see column at left), place numbered items into a column, too.

Do NOT allow a list to include more than seven items.   A long line with no breaks is visually dizzying and distracting for the reader.  
3.      Divide longer lists into sub-groups according to similarity or function, under appropriate sub-headers.  This makes it easier for the reader to understand, and stay engaged with, the content.

Do NOT let awkward phrasing,  incomplete thoughts, or mismatched grammar ruin the flow of your list.
4.       Once you have your list organized, ask, “Does each item stand on its own? Do they all work together?”  Then go back and edit for clarity and consistency. 

Do NOT publish a list as a stand-alone and assume your audience will know what to do with it.  

5.       Include an introductory statement.  Make sure it  states  the primary purpose of the list, its benefits, and how and when it should be used.

By the way, notice how the above table was constructed.  It's a list. How did I do?  Did you find it helpful?  Leave a comment to let me know.

See you back here soon for more miracle make-overs for messaging mayhem!  - - Beth

* Watch for future posts about the Stage to Engage principle of good communication. 

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