Slain by Bullet Points

A ubiquitous feature of business books is a list of summarized points. Each one is a takeaway from the previous text discussion, or a preview of the segment that immediately follows. The origin of this practice is the business presentation, held before an assemblage of clients and/or subordinates.

I have no problem with a summary. A businessperson does not have a lot of free time, and a handy digest can knock home the most important ideas. What I do find objectionable is a long list. If a bulleted list is longer than 5-6 entries, my eyes start to glaze over. What is the problem here? Am I such a poor student, letting down my mentor?

The difficulty arises from the very nature of communication. A pithy phrase by itself can be a fine distillation of a larger idea. Yet an entire run of short phrases can start to read like slogans or an author’s notes to himself that he is too lazy to explain.  Worst of all, they may strike the reader as annoying pronouncements from on high. One hallmark of American education is a distrust of grandiloquence. In an actual business meeting, a presenter anticipates this instinctive reaction. That’s why each bullet point up on the screen is then explained orally. In other words, each pithy phrase is then given the larger context from which it sprang.

The same occurs in good writing. You have a kernel of a good idea that you then expand into a thematic paragraph. Let’s say: a visionary leader is always bursting with new ideas. That is the topic sentence of the paragraph, and you fill out the proposition with common types of ideas such leaders have. That paragraph may then be followed by a paragraph or a few about a specific leader who had a specific idea. By the time you’re done, I have grasped the point.

Besides the proof that such elaboration provides, buttressing the thematic point, such writing also serves a vital function that tends to be overlooked in business writing. At all times, no matter what field, you are telling a story. It just happens to be a true story. You hold the reader’s attention by taking the time to explain how you arrived at your conclusion.

If you’re writing an entire book, you’re going to be spending a lot of time explaining. So spare us the long lists. Put the entire PowerPoint presentation down on paper, only in a form that readers recognize. The bulleted point is the topic sentence, and the oral explanation, now written down, fills out the topic.

Exercise: Locate a long bulleted list in your manuscript. Check each point against the narrative that (usually) precedes it. How many of those points did you actually make in the last section? Unless the section is much longer than most, you probably only made 5-6 major points. Put down only those. Anything else is more minor, and you should move them into the preceding text.

“I am a galley slave to pen and ink.”
—Honore de Balzac

Copyright @ 2019, John Paine

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