Tools are what we make them, aren't they? Even the simplest tools can become magical when they're in the right hands.
Take the pencil as an example. Give a five-year-old a pencil, and they'll draw stick figures or write their name in large, messy letters.
Give the same pencil to a master artist and she'll turn that tool into a magic wand, transforming a sheet of paper into a marvelous work of art.
That same small tool in the hands of an accountant can lead to quick mathematical calculations that just might save you money on your taxes next year.
You get the point. Tools are what we make them. A worthless tool for one person can be a masterful tool for someone else.
Could we say the same about bullet points in our copy? Absolutely!
Bullet and numbered lists have the potential to be powerful tools in any marketer's arsenal, but they are often misused and plagued with mistakes, meaning they often don't live up to their potential.
So what are the top mistakes many content creators make when it comes to bullet points and lists, and how can we avoid those mistakes, turning our lists into much more powerful features of our articles, landing pages, and emails?
Let's look at six top mistakes to avoid.
Mistake #1: Avoiding Lists Altogether
Because so many content creators and marketers get bullet points and lists wrong, they often opt to just avoid lists as much as they can.
After all, if you can't do something right, why bother to do it at all, right?
Well, that logic might not be as airtight as it may seem in our heads. Think of the following example.
Let's say you have a coworker with a name that is difficult to pronounce. Every time you say it out loud, you say it wrong and get laughed at. You don't like getting laughed at, right?
On top of that, you don't want to make your coworker feel bad, so you decide to just stop saying her name altogether.
Problem solved? Not exactly.
How do you think this person will feel when you go out of your way to not use her name? And how big of a fool will you look like when you’re finally forced to say her name in front of others, having to admit that, after all this time, you never took the time to learn her name?
Now, imagine learning her name early instead of later. Think of all the embarrassment you avoid from the start. And think of the benefits of having a positive relationship with her from day one, simply by learning her name.
In a similar way, being a modern writer and not knowing how to use bulleted lists properly is a bit embarrassing. And avoiding the issue will only make things worse down the road.
How much better it is, then, to learn to use these lists the right way from the start!
Mistake #2: Confusing Numbered and Unnumbered Lists
No artist would confuse acrylic paints from watercolors. Such an amateurish mistake could ruin a painter's reputation, not to mention the piece.
In much the same way, we need to remember the purpose behind these two kinds of lists. So let's look at some important differences.
A numbered list should have a specific order. If the items on the list were mixed up in some way, the entire list may not make sense.
So, for example, numbered lists work well with steps, a situation in which step one has to go before steps two and three. If you put step four first, the logic of the list falls apart.
This is not to say that the order of bullet lists is not important. You'll likely want to order your bullet points in a way that makes the whole list more convincing or that builds suspense.
What if you use numbers for a bullet list? It can be very confusing to the reader because they'll be trying to figure out why the order is so important.
Mistake #3: Trying to Make Bulleted Paragraphs
Lists are not meant to contain massive amounts of words. In fact, a list item doesn't even have to have a single complete sentence.
Many lists can be of one or a few words and nothing more.
Sometimes, we may start a list and realize that we had more to say than originally planned, so each bullet point becomes a massive block of words.
If you realize that, you may want to ditch the idea of a list and just write in complete sentences and paragraphs.
This is especially true when we remember that most people consume content on their phones or a tablet these days. That means that a medium-sized block of text on a large screen could completely fill a smartphone screen, making the long list items look even more ridiculous.
Mistake #4: Making Your Lists Too Complex
Microsoft Word has ruined lists for many modern writers.
The list function in Word allows you to hit the Tab key again and again to create deeper and deeper levels of a list.
This tool is great for making complex outlines, but such a complex style has no business in most content or marketing material.
Of course, lists nested within nests may be necessary when you're planning a content marketing campaign, but using such overly-complex list styles in your articles is like using a three-inch paintbrush for taking notes at a seminar. Not only is it overkill, but it also defeats the purpose of what you're trying to accomplish.
Lists are useful because they allow readers to scan them for quick and helpful information, and they just might catch the eye of the skimming reader who might otherwise choose to scroll to the bottom and just move on to reading something else.
But the human mind has a natural tendency to retreat from things that look overwhelming or too much work. So complex lists would have the same effect.
Mistake #5: Ignoring Symmetry
Lists, numbered or bulleted, should have a kind of symmetry. This means that each list item should be about the same length of the other items in the list.
So if you were making a list of the member of your marketing team, you wouldn't want it to look like this:
- Troy, the guy that does the accounting
- the smart one named Jeremiah
Doesn't that look a bit suspicious to you? Why did two from the list get singled out for an extra description? Or, worse, what if they all had descriptions of some kind except one, say, Sven. What does say about poor old Sven? Is he just THAT boring?
The point is, try to make all your list items about the same length, within reason. It makes the list look better and it keeps readers from forming conspiracy theories in their head.
In addition to that, the whole point of a list is to put things on equal ground. Giving one item more attention or giving it more detail makes the list feel lopsided and dishonest.
Mistake #6: Ignoring Parallel Construction
Another rule of lists, numbered and bulleted, is that all the list items should be the same kind of sentence or phrase. Start each list item with the same part of speech, and that usually keeps you away from something called false parallel.
This is true even with lists written in a single paragraph. So, for example, let's say I'm writing about the benefits of an active mailing list. I might say:
"Mailing lists have many benefits. For example, they foster a sense of community, they maintain awareness of your brand, they allow you to tell your story over time, you can tell them about sales and offers, and you can encourage subscribers to reply to some emails to continue the conversation."
Did you catch the breakdown of the parallel? Look at the same list in bulleted form, and you're sure to catch it.
- They foster a sense of community
- They maintain awareness of your brand
- They allow you to tell your story over time
- You can tell them about sales and offers
- You can encourage subscribers to reply...
You see? We started each item with "they," talking about mailing lists. Then, towards the end, we switched to starting each item with "you."
That's false parallelism. It's bad grammar and it makes readers scratch their heads. In the above example, you can at least follow the meaning. If you're not careful, though, your list can suffer from a breakdown of logic. Keeping the parallel helps ensure that doesn't happen.
So, after discussing a few of the main mistakes writers make in regards to their lists in content, are you ready to pick that tool back up and make it an integral part of your next article?