Write Better with Lists
Lists are a great way to convey information in business plans and other business documents. Unfortunately, many writers misuse lists, rendering their documents difficult to read. Here are a few simple rules to help you use lists effectively. Note that most of these rules apply both to narrative documents and to presentations.
Introducing Your List
Your list should be preceded by an introductory sentence that describes the items to follow. The last sentence before the list should end with a colon, as below:
Today’s class will cover the basics of financial statements. The three statements we will study include:
- Income statements
- Balance sheets
- Cash flow statements
Your list should consist of logically similar items. Here is an example of a list that includes an item that logically does not belong with the other three items:
Today’s class will cover the basics of financial statements:
- Income statements
- Balance sheets
- Cash flow statements
- Legal issues for business owners <= BAD; NOT RELATED TO FIRST THREE ITEMS
List items should consist of grammatically similar items: all nouns or all verbs, for example. If one bullet point is a complete sentence, they should all be complete sentences. If you use verbs, the verb tense should be consistent.
The list in the first example in this article consists of three nouns. The following example includes three verbs and a mismatching noun:
In today’s class, you will learn to:
- Calculate cash flow ratios
- Evaluate profitability
- Analyze balance sheets and liquidity
- Risk management <= BAD; DOES NOT START WITH VERB
Punctuation & Capitalization Consistency
List items should be consistently capitalized (all lower case, all sentence case, or all title case). As for punctuation, you have three main choices:
- no periods at the end of each bullet point, as in the examples above;
- periods at the end of each bullet point, especially if each bullet consists of one or more complete sentences; and
- serial list punctuation, where each bullet point is a clause in one long sentence, as in this example.
If you choose the serial list punctuation, you should be able to remove the bullet points to form one long sentence, such as this:
As for punctuation, you have three main choices: no periods at the end of each bullet point, as in the examples above; periods at the end of each bullet point, especially if each bullet consists of one or more complete sentences; and serial list punctuation, where each bullet point is a clause in one long sentence, as in this example.
List items should be of roughly comparable length. If you have one bullet point that is five words long and another that is 75 words long in the same list, you need to do a rewrite.
List items should be of roughly comparable importance. For example, the last item on the following list seems much less important than the others:
Our major competitive advantages include:
- 25% less expensive and 45% more reliable than the market leader
- Exclusive distribution agreement with Acme Widget company
- Broad patent portfolio to protect new features to be introduced in the next model year
- Now available in candy apple red <= BAD, UNLESS YOU SELL SPORTS CARS
List items should avoid errant spaces, inconsistent spacing between bullet points, misalignments, and other visual problems that take away from your message.
We all interpret visual works in different ways. What might seem trivial to you could be a sign of carelessness and inattention to your reader. Even a minor thing like the extra space before the second item in the following list could be a turnoff for your intended audience:
- Item one
- Item two <= BAD, SEE THE EXTRA SPACE AT THE BEGINNING?
- Item three
You should also ensure that bullet point styles are consistent throughout the same document: you shouldn’t mix colors, bullet symbols, font sizes, line spacing, etc. If you use dark blue squares in one place, you should use them everywhere. If you are using Microsoft Word, take advantage of the built-in Style Sheet capabilities to manage stylistic consistency within your documents.
It’s often useful to have a list within a list. If you do this, try to keep your subordinate lists relatively short and simple so that you don’t distract too much from the parent list. For example:
Some of our favorite types of restaurants include:
- Italian and pizza joints
- Asian restaurants, especially:
- Korean BBQ
- Steak houses
In general, the bullet point should be indented slightly from the level above it. Also, if the text in the bullet point is lengthy, the text should be consistently left aligned:
- Here is an example where the text is left aligned consistently. Here is an example where the text is left aligned consistently. Here is an example where the text is left aligned consistently.
If you are writing longer bullet points in support of an argument, add bold headings to the beginning of each bullet to make it easier for your reader to follow the progression of your argument. For example, here’s an excerpt from a recent post in our blog on how to prepare an elevator pitch:
Just what goes into your elevator pitch?
- Problem-Solution Combo: Start by expressing the problem you solve, in a way your audience can relate. For a company like Dropbox, it might be: “Isn’t it a royal pain to keep the files on your home and work computers and mobile devices synchronized and backed up all the time? Our software works in the background and takes care of that for you in the cloud, like magic.” Make the listener want to hear more. Focus on benefits and don’t get technical.
- Business Model: Explain, in one or two sentences, who your customers are and how you plan to make money. For example, “We target iPhone users, mostly in the 15-25 demo. We offer a limited free version; the full, unlocked, advertising-free version is $4.99.” Don’t make it more complicated than it needs to be.
- Competitive Advantage: What factors make your product better than alternatives and substitutes? For example, “Clinical trials show equal efficacy compared to the current market leading drug, but with significantly reduced toxicity and risk of stomach bleeding.”
Here are four tips on list length:
- You should never have a list with only one item.
- If you end up with a two-item list, then you may want to think about whether or not a list is the best way to express your idea.
- If the points in your list are arguments that support a larger idea, then it’s best to limit yourself to 3-5 main arguments.
- If you need to express a long list of things, you may be able to express yourself better using a table or graphic.
Numbered vs. Unnumbered
Unless your list is intended to be sequential, or you have a particular reason to use numbering (like “Our Top Ten Lessons Learned”), you should use a simple unnumbered bullet list.
If you’re creating a PowerPoint or Keynote presentation, you should look for ways to use graphics instead of bullet points (see Presentation Zen for best practices). If you MUST use bullet points, limit yourself to no more than 3-5 points per slide and use the fewest number of words you can get away with. If you’re creating an investor pitch, follow Guy Kawasaki’s 10/20/30 rule.
Well, that’s it off the top of my head. If you have any tips to share, please leave them in the comments section below.