Is Bulleted Text the downfall of communication?

A colleague said last week that bullet lists are the “bane of business communication” and attributed billions of dollars of damage to them. He’s a good writer and a thoughtful guy. His prose is better than most and includes a lot of information that he feels the reader needs to know. I see his point.

As a program and project manager, I need to get people to do what I am asking them to do quickly and with a minimum of confusion. It is imperative that I communicate well via email and in reports. They need to “get it” quickly, and over time, I found that bulleted text is an effective tool.

I used to spend a lot of time crafting paragraphs into the story I wanted to tell. I included context. I walked the recipient through the point step by step. I concluded with a request. It was beautiful.

But no one read it. No one.

So I reorganized. I moved my “ask” to the top of the email. I put context below it. I edited to make it shorter and more readable. Big improvement, I thought.

Still, no one read it. Well, not exactly. Now a few people got through the “ask” but didn’t read the rest and didn’t understand the reasons or necessary details.

The problem is time. To be productive in the modern business world, you have to move quickly from topic to topic. No one has time to study their emails – they SCAN them for the important stuff. “Get to the point, already!”

With trial and error, I figured out that stuff I put in bulleted lists gets read – especially if the text of each bullet is only a few words. Just grouping points into a list gives them context – they are related to each other. Lists are easy to scan in a few moments – they don’t need parsing the way full sentences and paragraphs do.

A bonus of short, bulleted text? Readers tend not to insert emotion or connotation into this text like they do with full sentences and paragraphs. How many times have you read an email and thought “he was kind of snippy” or “she could have been nicer about that request”. With short lists, that happens less often. Lists are, by definition, snippy, and everyone subconsciously knows that.

Bulleted text is a tool. It isn’t the whole communication. The goal is to make them easily “scannable”. The best way to do that is to keep your emails very short!!! But that’s not always possible, so combine lists with concise, readable paragraphs and other techniques, like bold or underlined text, section headers, paragraph spacing, and numbered lists.

  • Oh, and don’t put whole paragraphs in bulleted text like this. There’s no point to doing this – you lose all the benefits of bulleted lists and add confusion. You might as well use regular paragraphs.
  • And if you have multiple bulleted paragraphs in a row, they won’t have paragraph spacing between them. This causes your emails to become very dense and even harder to scan. See my point?

So here is where my business communication has evolved to…

  • Keep emails short
  • Put the ask at the top
  • For multiple requests, put each in its own bullet point
  • Keep paragraphs short
  • Don’t use flowery language
  • Break up long paragraphs into lists when possible
  • Break up long emails (if you must write them) with subheaders
  • Bold or underline the most important text
  • Don’t use periods in lists

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