connecting, convincing, engaging

talking point

Why bullet points can miss the target

Every corporate writer loves bullet points, and with good reason. Such a neat way to present a list or a related group of ideas in an abbreviated form. Plus they're easily read online. But not every bulleted list hits the target. Here's why.


punctuation consistency

Message matters isn't fussy about list punctuation although use of a semicolon after each point with an 'and' before the last is distinctly old hat. We have no issues if the client wants to start each point with a capital and end each with a full stop, or use lower case throughout with a full stop only at the very end. What's important is not the punctuation style but consistent application of the style across the document.


The bullets themselves should also be consistent, that is not * in the first list and > or anything else in later lists.


long lists, lost readers

How many points are too many? Some writers see no need to limit the number of bullet points in a list. Readers however do and are most unlikely to read the later points in a long list. Often such lists are also very repetitive, as the writer has simply done a mind dump and not bothered to analyse the list for double-ups or points that are not strictly on-topic.


Our rule is 5 bullet points per list maximum. When editing a long list we break it into different topic chunks and rewrite some of the information as normal paragraphs, which gives the reader greater variety.


same, same, same

Consistency is calming. A bulleted list reads much better if the opening word of each point is the same. When the first point begins with a noun, so should each subsequent point. Message matters favours opening each point with a verb, which is more dynamic. For example:


The aim of the exercise is to:

  • get participants working together
  • build problem solving skills
  • stimulate left brain thinking.


Note that each opening verb in the above example is different. Here the same, same, same rule does not apply. Instead of using those dreary corporate words 'develop' and 'provide' several times in the one list, we look for creative alternatives. It's more engaging for the reader too.


point drift

All the best lists comprise bullet points of roughly similar length. That's because readers will find lists with the odd expanded point visually and mentally jarring. Where one point in a simple list has become paragraph length, we either excise it from the list and present it as a separate paragraph or trim the point to a similar length to the rest. Same, same, same is the go.


summing up

When using bulleted lists:

  • standardise punctuation and bullet format across all lists
  • stop at 5 bullet points per list
  • open each point with the same type of word, for example, a noun or verb
  • keep points in the same list to roughly the same length



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