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Bullet points can shoot you in the foot

Communications have changed drastically over the past decade. Letters and phone calls have been replaced by emails and texts, and telling a story is now reduced to 280 characters or a picture that’s supposed to tell a thousand words.

With the push towards brevity and compacting messages into bite-sized portions, the rise of the bullet point is understandable, but they have made their way not just into PowerPoint presentations, but all forms of writing, from business plans, documents, to memos, presentations and blogs.

With writing it can be tempting to throw in a few bullet points to break up top-heavy copy, and when used correctly they can be effective, but if there are too many of them they lose that effectiveness. Simply slipping in a few bullet points to your writing does not make a document, a summary, or an analysis.

Bullet points may make your writing seem easy to read and get the main points of your message across in short, sweet snapshots, and while convenient in an environment that wants things done quickly and economically, they could be sabotaging your presentations without you being aware. They could, in fact, be sacrificing your story, and confusing your readers.

The theory behind bullet points is to make a complex argument or analysis easier to explain. Each separate point is designed to make the reader focus on the main ideas in easily digestible chunks. However, research has shown that bullet points don’t actually help readers remember the message. Rather, readers tend to focus on the individual points and forget the rest of the story and ultimately may miss the message you are trying to convey.
The best way to get a reader to make sense of a message is to weave it into a story with a beginning, middle and end. Research has shown that the more a reader has to think about a message, the more likely they are to remember it. If your writing is filled with bullet points, and disjointed pieces of information, you run the risk of your audience forgetting the link between, and ultimately the major point you’re trying to make.

Using too many bullet points does not allow your reader to contribute any thought to a content-driven piece of writing such as a business plan, because they allow them to skip the thinking step altogether.

The pitfall of using too many bullet points is that your readers do not explicitly draw the connections between the ideas in your writing, and you cannot assume your readers will be able to spot the connections themselves.

Bullet points stop you from telling stories and, more importantly, from engaging with a reader so they will read your writing from beginning to end.

So how can you make your audience understand your content if you can’t break it up with a few dot points?

Use short paragraphs and section headers. When you’re editing or proofreading, put a bit more effort into breaking down those lengthy, content-filled sentences and paragraphs into short, simple segments. This can help your writing flow into a memorable story.

If you have to use bullet points, do it sparingly, for very short lists of about three to five words per item.

A good rule of thumb: If you’re writing sentences, don’t use bullet points.
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