June 28, 2017

Check it twice

How to write a good list

“I love lists,” writes Adam Savage. “Always have. When I was 14, I wrote down every dirty word I knew on file cards and placed them in alphabetical order.”

How to write a good list - bucket list image

I’ve got a little list Write lists for flippers and skimmers, as well as for real readers. Image by Cakey Hamburger

There are lots of things to list — organizational accomplishments, steps for getting the job done, dirty words. Here’s a list of 10 ways to list things right:

1. Got a list? List it.

Lists are easier to read and scan than paragraphs. So if you have a series of three or more items in a sentence, paragraph or passage, make it a list.

Take this item from one of my client’s newsletters:

“What Makes a Good website—A survey of more than 8,000 participants revealed that four factors influence website popularity. The top-scoring factor was good content. This is of course a great relief, it confirms that web users are not stupid and that flashiness does not compensate for lack of content. The second-most important reason was usability, third was speed of downloads, and fourth was freshness of content. Usability was surprising not because it was unexpected that users wanted sites to be easy to use, but because usability is scrapped or at least postponed whenever a company wants to cut costs of website development. However, it is very difficult to add on usability later — it must be built into a site (or a product of any kind) right from the start. Many laypeople think that usability is only a veneer over a program, that it involves such issues as button placement and color choice. But in fact usability goes much deeper. Among other reasons, this is because the method of designing usability into a product involves first doing an analysis of the user’s needs, then designing around those needs. If you haven’t done the analysis, you have to redo the design later on. Usability involves the optimization of three factors: how quickly users can do what they want to do, how correctly they can do it, and how much they enjoy doing it. Usability is a key element for the next generation web markup language — XHTML2, being designed at the World Wide Web Consortium. [MIT Technology Insider, December 10, 2003]”

This story is much easier to read when you make it a list:

“What Makes a Good website?

“A survey of more than 8,000 participants revealed that four factors influence website popularity:

  • Good content
  • Usability
  • Speed of downloads
  • Freshness of content

“The big surprise here: usability …

2. Organize lists logically.

Choose the right structure:

However, you’ll also want to …

3. Take advantage of the last item on the list.

The last element on a list often attracts more attention, says usability expert Jakob Nielsen:

  • The first few items get the most attention.
  • The middle items get less attention.
  • The final item gets more attention than the one before it.

The serial item on a list may also benefit from the recency effect. This principle, coined by Hermann Ebbinghaus, says that items presented last will most likely be remembered best.

So if you’re creating a hierarchical list, consider an hourglass-shaped structure: Start with the most important items, bury the least important items in the middle, then end with the second- or third-most important item.

4. Show the parts.

To reach flippers and skimmers, you’ll want to lift the elements of your list off the page or screen with bold-faced lead-ins. Take this list, by my friends at Davis & Company. You’d never know what the elements of this list are without these bold-faced lead-ins:

“Here are four techniques used in billboard design that you can apply to your next poster project:

  • Snappy headline. Your headline needs to instantly grab the viewers’ attention and keep it long enough so they get your message. Be clever and provocative. For instance, a McDonald’s billboard contains words (no visual, except for the logo) on a coffee-colored background. Here’s the headline: ‘Four bucks is dumb. Now serving espresso.’
  • Arresting visual. Whether it’s illustration or photography (or a mix of both), use images that are unexpected, colorful, and easy to understand. Check out these examples.
  • Short copy. Many billboards have no copy; few have more than eight words. For example, a billboard for MiniCooper shows a photo of the car and this copy: ‘Jumbo Shrimp.’ Cute, right? If you have to explain your headline or go into paragraphs of detail, it’s no longer a poster.
  • Outside the box. Think posters have to be a 24” x 36” rectangle? Billboard creators know that breaking outside the box attracts interest. There are lots of examples in the 2010 OBIE awards winners. Be creative and let your ‘poster’ be a message on the floor, cling to a glass partition or cover the entrance of a building.”

5. Show the whole.

But what’s that a list of? Show flippers and skimmers what the list is about with a subhead:

“Four ways to make a great poster

“Steal these techniques used in billboard design for your next poster project:

  • Snappy headline. Your headline needs to instantly grab the viewers’ attention and keep it long enough so they get your message. Be clever and provocative. For instance, a McDonald’s billboard contains words (no visual, except for the logo) on a coffee-colored background. Here’s the headline: ‘Four bucks is dumb. Now serving espresso.’
  • Arresting visual. Whether it’s illustration or photography (or a mix of both), use images that are unexpected, colorful, and easy to understand. Check out these examples.
  • Short copy. Many billboards have no copy; few have more than eight words. For example, a billboard for MiniCooper shows a photo of the car and this copy: ‘Jumbo Shrimp.’ Cute, right? If you have to explain your headline or go into paragraphs of detail, it’s no longer a poster.
  • Outside the box. Think posters have to be a 24” x 36” rectangle? Billboard creators know that breaking outside the box attracts interest. There are lots of examples in the 2010 OBIE awards winners. Be creative and let your ‘poster’ be a message on the floor, cling to a glass partition or cover the entrance of a building.”

6. Lead with the verb.

Do you have a list of instructions? Take a tip from my friends at LeasePlanUSA and lead with the verb:

“Here are some tips for saving for the future.

  • Join your company’s 401K plan if you have not done so already. Like Mike Pitcher says …
  • Contribute 13% to 15% a year. Studies have shown that we should be saving …
  • Consider Roth 401K contributions. LeasePlan offers both the traditional 401K (pretax saving) and the Roth 401K (post tax saving) …
  • Increase contributions. So maybe you are not saving 13% to 15% today …
  • Invest for maximum growth. Talk to our Prudential advisors on guidance on investment and how you can grow your money …”

This approach will help you …

7. Make lists parallel.

One of the items on the LeasePlanUSA tipsheet is not like the others:

  • “The tricky balance of paying off debt and saving for the future. I know saving seems hard at times …”

To keep your lists parallel, set up an intro line that says something like “To save for the future …” Then in your head, include that line before each bold-faced lead-in:

  • (To save for the future,) Join …
  • (To save for the future,) Contribute …
  • (To save for the future,) Consider …
  • (To save for the future,) Increase …
  • (To save for the future,) Invest …

All of these items work. But this one does not:

  • (To save for the future,) The tricky balance of paying off debt and saving for the future …

The fix? Rewrite to put the verb first:

  • (To save for the future,) Balance paying off debt and saving for the future …

8. Don’t include too many items …

“Do not use more bullets than you get in a six-shooter,” recommends Rick Norton in Online Writing Digest.

Tip: If your article looks like a PowerPoint deck, you might have overused bullets points.

9. … But don’t include too few.

One item is an item. Two are a couple. It takes three items to make a list.

10. Punctuate.

If yours is a list of sentences, add a period to the end of each. Otherwise, skip the punctuation. The bullets stand in for semicolons and commas separating items in your series.

  • Lift Your Ideas Off the Page or Screen

    Sixty percent of your audience members aren’t reading your copy, according to estimates by professors at the University of Missouri. So how can you craft communications that reach nonreaders?

    Use your display copy — headlines, decks and subheads, for instance — to pull readers into your copy, make your piece more inviting and even communicate to flippers and skimmers.

    Catch Your Readers - Ann Wylie's persuasive-writing workshop in Kansas City on Nov. 16-17, 2017 imageAt Catch Your Readers — a two-day Master Class on Nov. 16-17 in Kansas City — we'll debunk destructive writing myths. You'll leave with scientific, proven-in-the-lab approaches for getting people to pay attention to, understand, remember and act on your messages.

    • Reach “readers” who spend only two minutes — or even just 10 seconds — with your piece.
    • Avoid dropping the piece of display copy that 95% of people read — but that many communicators forget.
    • Run a simple test on your message to ensure that even folks who will not read your message no matter how well you write it still get your key ideas.
    • Make your copy 47% more usable by adding a few simple elements.
    • Pass the Palm Test to make your message look easier to read. Because if it looks easier to read, more people will read it.

    Learn more about the Master Class.

    Register for Lift your ideas writing workshop in Boston


    Browse all upcoming Master Classes.

    Would you like to hold an in-house Catch Your Readers workshop? Contact Ann directly.

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