Bullet points are just starting points

When creating a website, a brochure, or an ad, many people believe that the best approach is to be as simple and straightforward as possible. And, for many of those people, being simple and straightforward means using brief bullet points instead of sentences and paragraphs.

“The only thing that matters is the facts” they say. “Nobody has time for fluff” they insist. “All anyone cares about is the down-and-dirty” they declare. “We’re far too serious and too busy for anything else,” they aver. “People make decisions by using facts,” they assert.

Bullet points are certainly more economical in terms of time and space, but they actually provide a false economy. You see, choosing bullet points over sentences and paragraphs presupposes that your audience is made up of rational creatures — and that just isn’t the case, even when that audience is made up of engineers or financial analysts.

Although we like to pretend that humans are rational animals, the reality is that even the most scientific among us are bundles of underlying emotions. When decisions need to be made — whether about choosing a complex circuit board or buying a new car — the process begins at an emotional level. (And some psychologists would tell you it goes even deeper, all the way down to our evolutionary survival instincts.)

So why are we convinced that we’re purely rational? Once our emotional triggers point us in a direction, we start to gather the rational facts that support that decision. That’s where the concept of “rationalization” comes from. For example, there’s that circuit board. The electronics engineer who is developing a product won’t even consider buying it unless she develops the confidence that it will solve the need she faces. Confidence is an emotional need, not a logical component.

Bullet points speak to that rational shell by conveying facts, but they neglect the emotional animal that’s inside. They can’t sing, they can’t entertain, and they can’t enthrall. But most of all, they don’t sound like people talking, and another human’s voice is one of the most powerful emotional triggers.

Does that sound strange? If so, consider that your marketing and communications materials stand in for you when you’re not able to deliver messages in person. To do that effectively, they have to sound like you and/or your company. They have to speak with your voice. The voice adds the emotional component that builds trust and familiarity. It overcomes objections and moves people to take action.

When you rely solely on bullet points, your company’s voice becomes little more than a robot spewing out a list of facts. You would never stand across from a prospect and deliver raw facts about your product in a monotone voice, but that’s how the brain perceives bullet points. They lack the warmth, the intonation, the uniqueness, and yes, even the passion that enters your voice when you talk about your company and what it does.

Some would argue that my points may be applicable in consumer marketing, but not in business-to-business messages. Nonsense! Companies don’t buy from companies; people working in companies buy from people working in other companies. The decision-makers will expect to study the facts, but they will respond far more effectively to emotional triggers. Does what you’re offering reduce their anxiety? Will it make them happier? Could it allow them to feel more confident? Will it improve the image of their business? All of those things — and the hundreds of others I didn’t mention — address emotional concerns and issues, rather than rational factors.

Yes, prospects need the facts about your products or services. But those facts will be far more meaningful or convincing when you wrap them in conversational messages that reflect the way you and your team members talk when you’re in person. It may take a little more time for the prospect to read them, but if what you’re offering is truly meaningful and compelling, they’ll gladly give you that time. You do the same in similar circumstances.

It’s okay to use bullet points as a tool within your overriding message, or as a support to summarize what’s elsewhere on the page, but if you rely on them as your sole form of communication you’re shortchanging your audience.

Not convinced yet? Then take a moment to compare the article you just read with the following:

  • Bullet points are popular
  • Users focus on facts
  • Users presume that people are rational
  • Decisions begin with emotion
  • Bullet points lack emotion
  • Bullet points don’t sound like you
  • Don’t use them alone

Not quite as compelling or instructive, is it?