How To Make Your Readers Really Read Your Lists - Deliberate Ink

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First, I have to confess: bullet posts are my favorite both to read and to write because they’re the easiest to fill space with–either the screen or my mind. But for the same reason, I feel they do contribute to the “drainpipe of lose facts” Danny Brown mentioned in his post yesterday (although I didn’t have those words until I read them–in a bullet, no less).

That’s why I’ve been subconscously avoiding them.

And that’s why I created this post. To make list posts more pithy, more unique, and more read.

I have to say I loved the way Erica Allison formatted her 9-item list of helpful questions to ask yourself before “doing” social media yesterday. Instead of the first few words, she bolded attention-getting text within each item, so we’re forced to go back to the beginning and read through to her point. I’ll use it here to show a few more ways to make lists a bit more stimulating and really read.

Bullets can be either “perfect” or “imperfect.” A “perfect” one basically means the bullet has everything going for it. It’s interesting, promising, pithy, and specific. “Imperfect” bullets only have a few of these qualities. Still, together they create enough of a natural ebb and flow that readers feel more comfortable reading the list than they would if every bullet was perfect. But if you don’t have enough “perfect” bullets, you lose your reader’s interest, and he starts skimming faster. So create a blend of bullets, leaning toward more perfect than imperfect ones.

What if you want to lead with a question? First ask whether your question answers itself. If it does, just leave the question out and elaborate from there. If you don’t, you end up asking an obvious question, answering it, and then going into details.  By that time, your reader has already provided his own answer to your question and moved on.

You know how when you start a sentence and continue into a list without ending it? Each of your bullets needs to be the rest of your sentence. So keep constructions consistent, or risk throwing off your reader just annoyingly enough each time you do to:

  • stop and go back to see if they missed something
  • make them wish you’d just finished that last sentence in your paragraph, already
  • get distracted and stop reading

And it’s up to you whether to use end punctuation on each bullet or not. Just be consistent.

A “reverse” list format is what I call Shonali Burke’s method of creating a call-out within paragraph text that makes a crucial point–but only in the context of the reading. Readers have to read the post to get the full import. And she sprinkles two or three throughout each post. In my case, if I do scan, I stop whenever I hit an intriguing call-out, because that call-out is seldom a “bullet-quality” soundbite I can file away, curiosity sated. Instead, I have to go back and read more to extract the key points and lessons.

Have you seen any “list” or “reverse-list” style posts you thought were unique or thoughtful? Link love welcome!

Photo credit: naraku009, courtesy of Flickr, CC 2.0.

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