Whether it be the “Top 5 tips for better writing”, “45 tools essential for monitoring your social media success”, or “How to spot a cheater: 10 sure fire signs your partner is unfaithful” it’s virtually impossible to get through the day without encountering a list.
Long the bread and butter of glossy magazines and popular culture rankings (the Billboard top 10, New York Times best seller) lists were, to some degree, popularised by David Letterman’s late night talk show. What many don’t know is the original intention was to poke fun at the concept.
Since then, they have become commonplace in almost all forms of communication: from online news, blogs, company newsletters, marketing campaigns and brochures. In my daily round of private and company e-mail, Twitter, LinkedIn, online news and Google+, I’ve had more then 30 lists presented to me, just today.
There lies the problem. Like most successful communication techniques, lists have become so popular that it’s hard at first glance to separate the good from the bad. Sure, part of the attraction is that they are short, quick to read and easy to digest; more a wrap up than an in-depth report. But if you have a deeper or more complex message to convey, perhaps you need to choose again.
So here’s my checklist of list of things to consider when preparing a list:
- As with any communication, clearly define your message and stick to it. It’s very easy to venture off on a tangent when writing lists, especially if they venture into preferences (see no. 5)
- Provide context for your readers/audience so they understand the connection between the various components of your list. A well thought-out introduction goes a long way.
- Where possible structure your list so your thoughts and arguments build on each other. It’s just like getting the right paragraph order in narrative.
- Add value. Lists of links to other sites, tools, products and so on, are fine, but help the audience understand where they are going and why it may be interesting for them.
- Don’t stray into the realm of preference. If your aim is to inform or educate you need to be balanced, explain your reasoning and if possible back up with examples and references. If your list title includes the words best or worst, this obviously doesn’t apply.
- Avoid adding or removing things to your list to make up the numbers. General practice says lists should have more than three but less than 10 entries – seven seems to be the preferred option. Length should be dictated by your message, what needs to be said, not a magic number.