by Jennie Ruby
After reading AJ's Tips for Better Data Representation article, fellow Skills and Drills reader Nancy Elliott sent the following question/comment:
"Edward Tufte may think that the correct number of items that belong in a list is zero, but does Jennie Ruby agree? I am old school. I think bullets help people focus."
My immediate answer is "I do love me a list." I love almost all of the things Tufte hates in a list: hierarchy, grouping, parallelism and repetition, signals as to whether the order matters or not, colors, shading, list builds in PowerPoint, and drop-shadows. Well, ok, I guess I can live without drop shadows if AJ can.
Why do I love all these things about lists? Because I know that people do not read. They do not read my handouts during classes. They do not read paragraphs of text on websites. They do not read solid pages of text before letting their eyes be drawn to the lists, graphics, and headlines. They do not read paragraphs longer than three lines in email. So if I want my audience to quickly absorb my main points, I make a list.
For example, one of my colleagues tells me that if she needs the answers to three questions she is sending by email, she makes sure to mention that there are three questions and to put each question in a separate paragraph (or bullet point). Otherwise, she says, recipients do not reliably answer--or even seem to notice--all of the questions.
Here is an example of an email message unlikely to get timely and thorough answers:
In reviewing your article (which I enjoyed very much) I found several areas that need attention. For example, I noticed that the page number was omitted for the quote in the first paragraph. I also need further information about your affiliation--did you write this during your tenure at the University of Maryland? In the endnotes, the third note is missing the publisher's city and state. Could you please send the missing information to me by Friday?
Here is the same email message recast as a list:
I enjoyed your article, which I reviewed for publication. However, before we can proceed, we need answers to the following three questions by Friday:
- What is the page number for the quote in the first paragraph?
- Did you write the article during your tenure at the University of Maryland? If not, please give the correct affiliation.
- What are the publisher's city and state for endnote 3?
Other lists I love: The list of objectives for a training module. The grocery list. To do lists. Production checklists. Quality control checklists. Outlines. The list of steps in completing a complex procedure. In short, I agree with Nancy that bullets help people focus.
Although I disagree with Tufte's seeming universal hatred of bullet lists, I do agree with his concern that bullet lists in business presentations limit complex analysis, fail to provide background information, and sometimes group things that cannot logically be grouped. For example, in academic writing, I have sometimes seen contradictory items placed within the same list as though the relationships between them are self-evident, with the effect that the reader's eyes glaze over in confusion.
About the Author: Jennie Ruby is a veteran IconLogic trainer and author with titles such as "Editing with Word 2003 and Acrobat 7" and "Editing with MS Word 2007" to her credit. She is a publishing professional with more than 20 years of experience in writing, editing and desktop publishing.