Stop using bullet points Our brains aren't wired to remember them

Stop using bullet points

Are you in the habit of using bullet points?

If so, you better quit.

Why?

Because people don’t remember them.

We don’t hear that often. On the contrary, many people, particularly in the blogging sphere, recommend using them.

Bullet points, so the story goes, are scannable and easy to read.

And yes, they are easy to scan. But what use is that when everyone forgets them?

Test it yourself the next time you come across a list. How many points do you recall when you’re done with the text?

It won’t be many. And that is no coincidence. Our brain isn’t wired to remember them.

Little processing power

Scientists have known for some time that our working memory is much smaller than we are tempted to believe.

Try to remember a seven-digit phone number for a few minutes.

It will take your full attention. The slightest distraction and the numbers are gone. That’s our short term memory: it has little processing power and it doesn’t hold facts for long.

Into the long-term memory

So, if you want readers to remember, you have to get your message into their long term memory. But the long term memory can’t hold much information either. In fact, the best you can hope for, is for people to remember the gist.

We all know that from the books we read. We don’t remember every paragraph or even every chapter. We remember the gist.

What’s the take-away?

This means that, from the beginning, we have to know what our most central message is: what is the one big point that we want people to take away?

Knowing this helps you to build your story and to put every argument to the test: What contribution does it make? Is it necessary? Does it distract? Every element should help to weave the story.

And that’s what bullet points don’t do. They are isolated facts. They don’t hold things together.

 

About Carsten

Hi, I am Carsten Wendt. I help people make their writing more exciting. I am also a passionate public speaking coach and Humorous Public Speaking Champion of Belgium.
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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Jan Drost October 8, 2012 at 6:23 pm

I do like “Bullet Points” for task lists and each task done, can be crossed out. If wan’t comment a task in a reply to an email, you simply write yours comments with another font or color behind the task an the bullit point holds it all together.

I would not like it in an article. I would chop up the text flow. (Can’t write articles myself). Or a summary at the end with bullet points is terrible

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Carsten October 8, 2012 at 9:46 pm

I agree, when it’s for task lists and quick reference, bullet points are useful.

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