Lists – we’ve all used them at some point in our papers, plans, and other documents. Lists are a great way to easily organize a multitude of information and can be a great relief to the eyes after reading paragraphs of small text. However, most people don’t use lists effectively.
You probably don’t think lists can be super effective but I’d like for you to consider this:
You’re up for a promotion and the success of your latest report could give you edge over other candidates. There is a part in the document where you note five key areas of improvement. How do you want the information displayed? Which would be more effective? Which list would give you that edge?
Unfortunately, most people don’t know which list would be more effective. Some would argue that the list on the left would give a more fancy and professional feel to the project, while others would say the list on the right is crisp, clean, and effective.
Although it might seem like a nuance or an insignificant part of your writing, effective lists can change a document and the perception it gives, thus impacting your customers and the choices they make. It’s a series of chain reactions. Here’s how it goes:
Effective lists = perceived experience = better reputation = more customers = more money
So, now that you understand how effective lists can work in your favor, what do you need to do in order to create them?
1. Pick a readable font and an appropriate size.
The first step to creating an effective list is picking a readable font and a good size. Choosing a readable font is critical because without an understandable font selection, your readers won’t know what you’ve written. You can’t go wrong with standard fonts, such as Arial or Times New Roman. Nothing fancy, though. Go for readability over elegance.
As far as size is concerned, you want to stick to what you’re using already. If your document is in 12 point font, keep that size. Shifting sizes will cause the reader to be confused. They won’t know which text is more important, your list or your paragraph.
2. 95% of the time, align to the left.
Most of the time, you’re going to want to align your list to the left. Basically, it should look like this:
In English speaking cultures, readers scan from left to right. So, aligning your list on the left makes it easier for the reader to notice as they are going through your document. The only time you would want to use a different alignment is in a case where you were adding effect. If you want your list to stand out, give it center alignment. But, realize that this could backfire on you and that it shouldn’t be done more than once in a document.
3. Don’t mix-and-match font styles.
When you’re formatting the text of your list, don’t mix-and-match styles. So, don’t make every other item bold so it can stand out. If you’re going to bold text, make it all of the text. Also, remember that applying different formatting options doesn’t always make your list more effective. In fact, most style take away from the effectiveness of your list. But, as I said before, if you’re like to add a little bit of emphasis here and there, create a bolded list.
4. Keep each item short and to the point.
If you need to say a lot, a list isn’t the way to do it. Lists are intended to be short and concise. Typically, each item on a bulleted list should only have a maximum of four or five words. If you can’t say it in a few words, don’t create a list.
5. Don’t create more than five or six rows.
One of the biggest mistakes writers make when creating lists is that they include too many vertical items, or rows. A reader doesn’t want to linger their eyes for a long period of time and, if your content is being viewed online, they don’t want to scroll up and down a page to read listed content. If your list includes more than five or six items, extend your list horizontally instead of vertically. Go across the page instead of down the page. This will keep the reader’s eyes in one area but will clearly separate your items.
6. Use a consistent structure.
When you are writing your list, use consistent word structure. Don’t do this:
- The dogs
- The loud geese
- The soft, yet dangerous, bears
Keep a specific word structure. If you’re going to use only nouns, use solely nouns for each of your items. If you’re going to be a little more detailed and add in adjectives and adverbs, do it for every item. This will keep the reader on track and will not cause them to feel overwhelmed.
7. Choose professional, not fancy, bullets or numbers.
Bullet selection is critical, mainly because it’s the first thing a reader sees when scanning your list. They don’t read your content first and then look at the bullet. They see the bullet first and they immediately form a perception about your list and your credibility. Stick with professional bullets and shy away from using playful or fancy bullets. It really can make a difference in your list.
Lists are an efficient way to organize content for easy readability and reference. However, if your list does not facilitate effectiveness, it might cost your company in the end. Keep your lists professional and succinct. If you do, you’ll be sure to make an impact no matter what type of document you are creating.
Eric Alpin is the Associate Editor of Folk Media and works for a telecommunications company in Baltimore, Md. He is a social media enthusiast, blogger, writer, and student with a passion for leadership and self-development strategies and techniques. Find out more about Eric on Twitter.
*Photo by bizior