Bullets are designed to call out key points and help the reader scan large amounts of information. Or at least, that’s the idea.
You can start out with good intentions when you use them – you’re probably trying to make life easier for your readers. Perhaps you’re trying to create a document that’s snappy, easy to understand, and that looks clean and modern.
Unfortunately, in practice, bullet points can do the exact opposite. Endless bullets can be tedious to read. They’ve been around since the 80s, so they no longer automatically make a document look particularly modern. And when they’re used in the wrong context, they’re anything but easy to understand.
One way that using bullets can badly misfire is when the author uses them to present an argument.
A bullet list does not an argument make
The theory: When you have a complex argument or analysis to explain, bullet points are a great idea. By breaking your argument into separate bullet points, you can make it easy to understand. Your reader just takes in each idea, one by one.
The reality: This often doesn’t work, largely because of what psychologists call the illusion of transparency.
The illusion of transparency is the mistaken idea that whatever is going on in our own heads is obvious to other people. A classic demonstration of this is for one person to tap out a familiar tune (like ‘Happy birthday’ or their national anthem) with their finger and then ask another person to guess the song.
Try it for yourself. Think of a famous tune and tap it out to a friend or colleague. You will be amazed at how few people can correctly guess the song you’re tapping out – experiments find that listeners guess correctly only around 3 per cent of the time. To you, it seems utterly obvious that you’re tapping out a well-known tune. But the listener can only hear disconnected taps.
Bullet points do exactly the same thing in writing. If you don’t explicitly draw the connections between the ideas in your writing, you can’t rely on your readers spotting the connections for themselves. The illusion of transparency reminds us that this is usually the case even when the connections between your bullet points are obvious to you.
Of course, you can draw connections in ordinary running text. Our language is full of connective words that show the relationships between ideas. These include words like ‘but’, ‘and’, ‘so’, ‘because’, ‘or’, ‘either’ and ‘instead’.
But while you can (and probably naturally would) use words like these in regular structured prose to link your ideas, bullet points strip all of them away. And without them, you can’t say – unequivocally – how ideas relate to each other. You can’t talk about how or why a particular point is important – or not. And you can’t expect your reader to fill in the blanks between your bullet points, as they’ll often miss the links that seem obvious to you.
Assemble the pieces
You may have seen whole reports, proposals or emails that are little more than a list of bullets.
The fact is, sometimes we might reach for bullet points as an alternative to fully planning out what it is we’re trying to say. It can be tempting, especially under time pressure, to try to skip over this part of the process and leave our reader to put the pieces together.
But simply laying out a list of facts in bullet points does not by itself constitute a document, or an analysis, or a summary – it’s just a shortcut to nowhere. Documents like that never do your expertise and analysis justice, and they’re very unlikely to leave the reader informed, persuaded or happy.
Instead, you need to make sure you do the work to assemble your argument first. If you start by being clear in your own mind what the connections are, you can then make these clear to your reader – and be sure they’ll get your point.
This post is taken from a larger lesson about the perils of misused bullet points (and better alternatives) in our online-learning programme, Emphasis 360. The programme is designed to transform your writing step by step in practical, bite-sized lessons. You can try it out for free here (scroll down to the Class Curriculum for lessons you can preview).
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