Friday, April 20, 2012

Friday Fundamentals: The Wisdom of Checklists

This week's Friday Fundamentals feature showcases another basic trick you can use to enhance your communication skill.   

We all know it's a challenge to capture and hold our audience's attention, especially when your platform is a words-only written piece.  People don't read any more. In fact, many people zone out when they're faced with a solid block of text, like this one. (I hope you're still reading!)

Audience engagement is important because without it, the message doesn't get delivered.  Wise communicators fight to win their audience's attention because that's the only way they will achieve the purpose behind their communication.   

Take this quiz: What's your main purpose for putting words together?  What are you usually trying to do?
      • Promote an event
      • Sell a product or service
      • Influence behavior
      • Build trust
      • Improve performance
      • Increase awareness
      • Attract new customers
      • Enlist support
I'm betting you mentally checked off more than one goal.  Whatever your answers were, you were engaged in the process of picking your choices, right?  That's my point.  A checklist activates audience imagination. It gets readers to mentally try out different options, or to set priorities.  To jog their memories, or visualize further action.  That's why wise communicators use it as a powerful tool to accomplish all of the above.  (A little checklist lingo, there.)

The humble checklist is an old-school device that's getting a new mantle of respect in the 21st century. In the past few years, hospitals have embraced checklists as a way to reduce surgical complications and cut costs.  They're also more popular than ever in mainstream books and publications.  This morning over breakfast, I opened Real Simple magazine and came across a beautiful three-page spread of checklists.

Today, right after I publish this post,  I'll be crafting a checklist as part of a PR campaign targeting 75 churches  to drum up volunteers for a charity cause.   By the way, you can google Convoy of Hope to read about their amazing work, and if you want to help with their Long Island event on June 9th, email me at  Oops! I jumped off topic there.  That wouldn't have happened if I were following a checklist.

I first realized the power of the checklist when I was a filmmaker covering the aerospace industry.  I watched test pilots use it during their preflight "walk-around" to ensure all systems were go before taking their plane up and pushing its limits.  Today, the preflight checklist is an everyday reality on launchpads, aircraft carrier decks, and civilian airport tarmacs.  It's one of the reasons that the airline industry has a great safety record.

Format-wise, a checklist also has the advantage of breaking up text visually.   It looks less intimidating to the reader, so therefore it's more likely to be read.  A string of paragraphs doesn't rivet audience attention -- or move their finger to the scroll bar -- nearly as effectively as a single, mighty checklist.

Speaking of which, here are some tips for how to construct a powerful checklist, presented in the form of a -- you know what.

Guide to a Remarkable Checklist
  • Pick your material.  Any group of things that you want people to remember can be put into a checklist.  But be selective: too many items will bog down your reader.
  • Decide whether to make an action checklist or a shopping checklist.   Don’t mix the two. 
  • Use consistent structure. For an action list (like this one), start each item with a verb.  If it’s a shopping list (a menu of things to remember or options to choose from), start each item with a noun.  For example, my Convoy of Hope checklist will give potential volunteers a checklist of roles to sign up for:  Doctor, Nurse, Dental Hygienist, Haircutter, Children’s Worker, Photographer… uh-oh, back off track again!
  • List things in obvious order.  As we mentioned in last week’s Friday Fundamentals post, lists are better when they’re organized.  Make sure you don’t present items out of their natural sequence (if there is one).
  • Keep sentences short.  If you have more to say about each item, use the format shown here: bold your first sentence, then add other key thoughts in regular font.
Even with the checklist's increased popularity, I often wonder why it's still so undervalued and underused.  Do we think it's too obvious -- too "duh" for our sophisticated target group?  Um - have you watched reality TV shows lately? Flowery is out.  Mundane is in. Your audience doesn't want sophistication.  It wants simplicity. And checklists provide just that.  Or is the problem that we think a checklist might sound too bossy?  Just ask Martha Stewart: people are hungry to be told what to do.  A checklist gives them a sense of empowerment, reassurance, self-worth and direction.  Checklists are the chocolates on your cozy pillow of well-crafted information.

Last night I attended a seminar that missed a golden opportunity when it failed to provide attendees with a checklist.  The subject was buying real estate, and a series of speakers gave short talks about various aspects.  We heard from a title insurer, a lawyer, an agent, and a mortgage banker.  There was a lot of helpful information given.  I glanced around.  People's non-verbals signaled polite interest, but with a degree of detachment.  No one was taking notes.  How was anyone going to retain this material?

At the door there were plenty of giveaways:  pens, magnets, business cards and boxes of mints, all inscribed with the participating experts' company logos.  What was missing?  A checklist of everything a person needs to think about when buying property, featuring the speakers' names and contact info.  That would have been a truly strategic add-on to maximize the value of the seminar and lead to follow-up sales.  And it would only have taken some thinking ahead, a couple of hours of prep work, and some photocopying.

Aha.  I think I just answered my own question about why more people don't use checklists.  It just doesn't occur to them -- or if it does, it means more work, and more logistics -- and they're just not that into it. 

Don't be one of those people who posts an online article, puts on an event, or places a blurb in an employee newsletter without even considering how this simple formatting device might cement your goals.  Try including a checklist in your next project.  Then ask: did it get remarkable results?  Check!


  1. Beth, Congrats on your blog! Love it, I will follow along. Your writting style is very engaging, thanks particularly for the stories, they help ink your points into my head!

    I'm a listmaker for myself, but after reading this blog, will add checklist to both my employee and client communications. Thanks.

  2. Welcome, Barbara! That feedback is especially appreciated, coming from an experienced businessperson like yourself. - - Beth