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30 March 2011

'Just give it to me in bullet points'

Have you noticed how often this catch cry is sounded? — a catch cry usually by managers and team leaders to hard-pressed writers.

Bullet points may not be the magic bullet

Writers have lots of presentational tools at their disposal. Bullets are only one of them. I’ve grown suspicious of what people who ask for information in bullet points really mean, and whether what they get is what they want. And I’ve also grown suspicious of what writers think is meant by ‘Just give it to me in bullet points’.

Bullet points should form part of the writer’s overall plan

Like other aspects of writing, bullet points need to be planned. Writers should be able to justify using them. And writers need to be able to distinguish whether they are using bullets to:

  • list single word items
  • deconstruct a sentence
  • summarise main messages.

Writers need to consider what information to convey in bullets

Writers may argue that bullets convey information more concisely or more clearly. I would argue that that’s only if the writer has figured out what they’re trying to be concise and clear about. Writers argue that bullets are more effective than paragraphs — I would argue that many bullet points I see are longing to be paragraphs!

Bullet points work as a summary of main messages

When managers say ‘Just give it to me in bullet points’, what they probably mean is ‘Give me a summary.’ Bullets look dynamic and that’s why we use them. But we should be sparing with them. And it would be unfair to reproach bullet points just because managers ask for them.

There was once upon a time life without bullet points

Computers provide a range of possibilities for presenting content that’s easy on the eye and reader friendly. Those of us who remember the typewriter didn’t have bullet points. You had to convey information using the likes of well-constructed sentences and paragraphs.

Is it a coincidence that the rise of bullet points is accompanied by the demise of the ability to string together a correctly constructed sentence or a recognisably coherent paragraph?

We could blame the computer

It’s only since the advent of the computer that we have bullet points to enhance our writing lives. Bullets first appeared, innocently enough perhaps, in PowerPoint presentations. The computer programme offered you a bullet point and you took it. Then it offered you another one. It would be difficult to come across anyone who’s watched a PowerPoint presentation and not been overwhelmed by the number of bullets they’ve been faced with.

Links on bullet points

The M Factor gives instructions on “Good use of bullet points”.

Speaking About Presenting reports on some research that shows slides full of bullet points don’t work.

1 comment:

  1. I think abandoning sentence structure for bullet points also encourages people to write lazy, passive text.

    Something that is supposed to be more punchy may well end up less specific, or less measurable.