How to write bullet points that WORK

The bullet point is a valuable writing tool when you don’t have the time or inclination to write something out in full. However even with their humble restrictions, they can be written in a number useful, different ways.

Why it matters how and what you write as bullet points

writing bullet points

Never, ever read the bullet points and other text from your slides.

If you want them to create the right effect in whatever they lead to and save you time, effort and credibility, it helps to learn the subtle differences. Here are a few ideas to help you make yours more useful…

Key types of different written bullet points

Here’s a selection of uses for bullet points that you’re likely to come across in your work and personal life. See how they all differ slightly from each other – and why. For example:

In general writing. If you have more than three key items to include in a list (even a shopping list!) putting them all into one sentence can be lumpy to read and more difficult to absorb. Have a look at these alternatives and see which you find tidier and easier to grasp …

I reckon we need to get these things ready for our camping trip: sleeping bags, the camping gas stove, one of the larger tents, plenty of batteries, the usual food supplies, a six-pack of bottled water and some fire lighters.

I reckon we need to get these things ready for our camping trip:
**Sleeping bags
**The camping gas stove
**One of the larger tents
**Plenty of batteries
**The usual food supplies
**A six-pack of bottled water
**Some fire lighters

Your own “to do” list. Most of us have one and, er, most of us try to follow it specifically! One thing that does make that process even more difficult is because your “to do” list when you first write it out is unlikely to be properly priortised. Solution? Do two. First of all scribble down everything you need to do, then go back and assess which – realistically – you can achieve in order. Don’t be overly ambitious and put the really hard ones first, because unless you are super-human you need to warm up on the easier ones, then work up gradually to the tough ones. At least that’s what I do and OK, there are some of you who are super-human and get the toughest bullet-pointed tasks done first. I salute you.

Taking notes or minutes in a meeting. Bear in mind not what you hear and feel you should record in a meeting, but what a) people present will need to be reminded of and b) what people not present need to know and/or be reminded of. It’s amazing just how little people in business or other formal meeting capacities need to trigger a memory; the more detail you include, the less people will absorb. Key people will just zone out. If detail is required, shove it into an attachment then retain the crucial issues and action points in your bulleted notes.

Summarising business documents. In my not-so humble opinion all business documents must have some sort of executive summary or abstract so that busy executives get the drift without having to dredge through pages of detail when they should be out there slaying dragons and getting their businesses up everyone’s noses. Humble bullet points can achieve this even if all the detail has to be presented as well, allowing readers to skip down and through a series of these bullet points presented as sub-headings that give them a good picture of the content in a short period of time.

Key issues for a PowerPoint or similar presentation. Oh, don’t get me started on PowerPoint or, as we in the trade call it, “death by PowerPoint.” Now this is a little unfair because Powerpoint is a wonderful device that makes a huge, third-dimensional contribution to the presentations of many speakers I know. But it’s the others that make my teeth curl. Once again I am prejudiced up to the eyeballs as in my unpaid job as Chair of this charity when I have to listen to twitching medics mumbling through the text on slides containing 500 words or more which can’t be read from more than a metre way from the screen – if you’re lucky and have 20-20 vision. PLEEEZE, if you use PowerPoint, observe the following:

  1. Use bullet points on your slides to summarise the key points you make, or add to them
  2. Do not use the bullet points or other text on slides to duplicate what you say
  3. Keep text on the slides to a maximum of, say, 30 words preferably split into a few bullet points (more than that people at the back can’t see)
  4. Use some of the slides to show a picture / image to lighten up the talk
  5. Use video only to expand on what you’re talking about – especially for an extra dimension like exterior locations the audience can’t see
  6. Do NOT depend on PPoint to deliver your message: use PP only to support it
  7. And whatever else you do, never, ever read the bullet points and other text from your slides. It makes your audience wonder why you bothered to show up at all.

Personal bullet points to use as prompts when you’re giving a talk or presentation. Bullet points here are different if only because this time they are about you and no-one else. It’s about writing down key words or phrases that will create the correct memory to trigger your telling of the full version. Often it may only a a few words, e.g. “bow tie” for a story about losing a bow tie five minutes before heading out to a tuxedo / black tie dinner or “fall in customer renewals” to start a rebuke to the aftersales team. It’s well worth checking that these work when you are rehearsing your talk.

Issues for you to remember when being interviewed. Depending on the nature of the interview (and we’re talking media interview here, not job interview) you may not be able to use bullet points written down – e.g. in a video or TV recording or live show where it really doesn’t look cool to be seen fiddling with a piece of paper or card. Tip: use the school kid’s trick of writing very, very short bullet points down on the palm of one or both hands. In an interview which this is likely to be, ostensibly you will be guided in what to say by the interviewer’s questions but if you have a business or cause you want to promote, you may just like to jot down a couple of bullet points on your palm to remind to you work those topics into the conversation!

Punchline: why writing bullet points right matters

Although in broad terms a bullet point is a bullet point is a bullet point, to make them work well for you means observing the nuances and subtle differences according to their ultimate purpose – and then adapting your own bullet points appropriately.

What do you find useful / helpful / annoying / irrelevant about bullet points?

Please share!

Comments

comments

Thoughts

  1. I’ve found that since I had my stroke and “talk funny” now, that when I make a phone call I tell the listener how many points/ questions I have. I always keep this less than 3 too.

    I’ve found they not only listen better but often ask me what the 3rd point is if I forget!

    Also with Powerpoint (I use Keynote – I’am a “Mac person”) I keep the number of bullets to 3 to 5 AND many slides are pictures that are relevant to what I’m saying.

    • That is a very valid point, Trudy, and one which I should have outlined in the article above.
      Too many bullet points get dissipated and, in the main, ignored past about bullet #4 or so.
      Thanks so much for pointing this out.
      And the solution if you have more than say, five bullet points to share?
      Group them into sub-categories so your narrative includes them in sequences of around three.
      Trudy, would you agree with that?
      Sz xx

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