Friday, July 27, 2012

Friday Fundamentals: Top Tens

Here we are again at Friday Fundamentals, a series of posts whose purpose is to present helpful communications tips and techniques to help you "tell it well." This week, it's all about a proven attention-getter that sparks reader curiosity even as it moves large quantities of information into their brains.

Today the Olympic Games open with a flourish of spectacle -- and a tsunami of human interest trivia and sports statistics.  Listening to the brouhaha in the media during the past few days, I was struck by the sheer volume of facts that are being broadcast already, before the first competition even starts.  Athletes' names, countries, backgrounds, training regimens, doping histories (!), coaches, and details of their personal lives are being proclaimed with wild abandon.  Even their fast food choices are public knowledge.

And then there are the rankings: who scored what in the preliminary rounds, which teams are the odds-on favorites, and where each competitor stands in his or her quest for the gold.

All of this furor has reminded me that, when there is a lot of information to convey, it helps to size it down into something more graspable.  And one of the best devices EVER to hold audience attention when presenting a lot of information, in my opinion, is the Top Ten List.

Have you ever used a Top Ten List to add interest and variety to your regular communications?  If not, then here are --

Beth Rickert's Top Ten Reasons To Use A Top Ten List

1.  A Top Ten List adds credibility to any subject matter.  Want to reinforce your stance on a subject? Conduct a poll about it, and then publish the findings in a Top Ten list.  It's an engaging way to present  popular survey answers that underscore the point that you want to make.  

2. It injects variety.  A Top Ten List alters the pace of a long essay or speech.   It's like a background scenery change in a one-character play.  It gets you out of straight paragraph mode for a while, and your audience will enjoy the change.

3.  It appeals to basic human curiosity. Top Ten lists are fun and fascinating because they awaken the Mrs. Kravits inside of each of us.  Remember her?  She was the nosy neighbor from the old Bewitched TV show who was always peeking through the blinds, spying on Samantha Stevens next door.  We all want to know what other people think is cool, worthwhile, or important. So we latch onto Top Ten lists like leeches, because they promise to tell us what the neighbors are thinking.

4.  It allows you to pass on a great deal of detailed material in a palatable way.   Using a Top Ten list, you can present a plethora of material that might otherwise be hard to swallow, and keep your readers coming back for more.  

5.  It cashes in on the mystique of the number ten. I never have figured it out totally, but if you take a bunch of facts, number them from one to ten, and title them  "Top Ten [Whatever]," people seem to be ten times more likely to read them.  The number ten as a total quantity seems to have its own appeal.  After all, who would want to read the Top Nine ways to do anything?  Or listen to the Top Eleven songs of the week? 

6.  It lets you turn nagging into friendly persuasion.  Once I was asked by a big non-profit organization to write an article telling local organizers to send thank you letters to volunteers after that big organization's multi-site national event.  Basically I just shoveled all the relationship-building benefits of expressing gratitude into one long list and I titled it Top Ten Reasons To Say Thanks.  It was a slam dunk: the response was terrific.  It's still in their event manual, years later.

7.  Top Tens are keepers.  A very smart businesswoman I know lists her Top Ten Keys To Great Customer Service on the reverse side of her laminated business card.  That's one card that stays in prospective clients' hands, wallets, and bulletin boards and is referenced time and again. Like I said --  very smart! 

8.  David Letterman has paved the way. The late night TV show host has made the Top Ten a comic institution, giving it both cult cachet and cultural relevance.  

9.  Catch the interest of  the "numbers" people in your crowd.   Got accountants?  Engineers?  Computer scientists?  These are the types that are least likely to stick with a steady flow of words, words, words.  They see a Top Ten and they feel like they're instantly in more familiar territory.    Word-loving people like us don't get why they're automatically happier with a number standing sentry at the beginning of each paragraph, but they are. Go figure.  

10.  Turn any trivial matter into an Olympic-sized pursuit.  If you have to talk at length about a subject that your audience might feel blah about, putting your discourse into a Top Ten framework will up the ante and stir up some latent competitive energy.  

Try this example: imagine two articles in the town councilman's mass-mailer newsletter.  One is titled Town Recycling Regulations.  The other's headline is Top Ten Things To Remember When You Recycle.  Which do you feel more like reading?  

The Top Ten list, of course. That's because it not only sparks your curiosity, it also promises the potential of competitive advantage. You're already thinking: "The truck won't leave behind my bundles of cardboard at the front of my house, because I'll know the maximum dimensions, thanks to this cheat sheet here! But, ha ha ha!  My neighbor's cardboard bundle will be left behind on the curb, because it will be pathetically oversized!"

Well maybe that's both extreme and a bit distorted, but you get the point.  When you see the recycling rules formatted as a Top Ten tip sheet, you might be more inclined to feel that your town councilman is giving you a helpful resource with insider knowledge that can increase your expertise and mastery -- and less inclined to feel as though he's just bossing you around, darn his gol-danged hide!   (Hmm. I guess the town in this example is somewhere in the backwoods.) 

Aaaaaaanyway --  my Fundamentals tip of the week is just this:  try putting out your own Top Ten List the next time you need to grab people's at-TEN-tion.   

Okay, gotta run -- time to turn on the TV and watch the big preparations in London for tonight's extravaganza.  I won't be alone.  In fact, I'm sure that watching the Olympics will be one of the Top Ten activities that all my blog readers all over the world will be doing this week.  Enjoy!  Go Team USA!     

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