6 reasons to list lists
Lists comprise some of history’s most memorable content — from Moses’ 10 Commandments to Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses, from Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits to Ben Franklin’s 13 Virtues.
- Shakespeare coined the term “list,” in Hamlet. “List, list, O, list!” wrote the Bard.
- Wallace Stevens and Johnny Cash turned lists into an art form.
- (Want more examples? Here’s a list of literary lists.)
So here, of course, is a list of the top five reasons to list lists. Use a numbered or bulleted list when you want to:
1. Get attention.
People can’t resist a list.
Lists “are to the web reader’s eye what Brad Pitt is to the paparazzi,” say Kara Pernice, Kathryn Whitenton and Jakob Nielsen, the authors of How People Read on the Web. “You just can’t get enough.”
That’s because lists make skimmers’ jobs easier and draw the eye. Indeed, according to Pernice et al., web visitors look at 70% of the bulleted lists they encounter.
As a result, lists and other “unconventional” approaches (including Q&As, timelines and short sidebars) get 15% more attention than the average story, according to The Poynter Institute’s Eyetrack07 study.
2. Give journalists what they want.
Why make us work so hard? kvetch journalists surveyed for a study by Greentarget.
These folks are frustrated that they’re too often forced to hunt through long rivers of gray text to find the news. No wonder more than half of them said they’d find it helpful to have a bulleted list of key facts in a release. And more than one-third more were open to the idea.
So give reporters what they want: Add bullets. While you’re at it, why not add subheads, bold-faced lead-ins, callouts and other display copy to make it easy for reporters and others to scan your release?
3. Reach nonreaders with words.
Good lists lift ideas off the page for skimmers and scanners.
Web visitors “have come to realize that bulleted lists do some of the work for them,” write Pernice et al., “so they don’t have to read as much text to get the main idea.”
4. Make messages easier to understand.
Readers also understand lists better than conventional articles, according to Eyetrack07.
5. Get remembered.
And readers remember lists longer than conventional articles, according to Eyetrack07.
That may be because humans process information spatially. Leave your grocery list at home, for instance, and you’ll probably still remember most of its items, because you recall where they were located on the list.
So your readers won’t forget: Please remember, write a list.
6. Cut Through the Clutter.
Bulleted lists help you:
- Break up full sentences to make them easier to read and understand.
- Make paragraphs look easier to read so more people read them.
- Write more concisely, because they eliminate the need for transitions.
Bottom line: If you have a series of three or more items in a sentence or paragraph, make it a list. If you find that your article has become a list of lists, you need more stories, examples, exposition and other types of information.
Lists grab attention, but lists of lists — and, worse, multilevel lists — can be tedious and exhausting. No wonder Pernice, et. al, found that people pay less attention to each subsequent list on a webpage.
When to use a bulleted list
What is the purpose of a bulleted list? Use lists when you want to grab attention, get the word out to skimmers and scammers, and make your message more concise and memorable.
Learn more about listing lists
Should you use bullet points or numbered lists? Complete sentences with full stops or partial sentences? How can you format the items on a list to reach skimmer and scanners? And how do you punctuate lists anyway?
Find out more about how to create a list for business writing.
Sources: Kara Pernice, Kathryn Whitenton, and Jakob Nielsen; How People Read on the Web: The Eyetracking Evidence; Nielsen Norman Group; Sept. 10, 2013
Dr. Pegie Stark Adam, Sara Quinn and Rick Edmonds, Eyetracking The News, The Poynter Institute for Media Studies, 2007
George A. Miller, “Psychology and Information,” ACM SIGDOC Asterisk Journal of Computer Documentation,1993