Well-crafted bullet points make your copy more readable. And they allow you to do something else that is very important, as well. What is that something else? You’ll have to listen to the latest episode of The Lede to find out.
Keep your readers running down your page like water on a slide.”
Wouldn’t you like your copy to have that effect?
Of course. Who wouldn’t?
In this episode, Demian and I discuss:
- The two primary functions of bullet points
- Why bullet points are essential for readability
- How bullet points can (and should) be used to tease and entice
- What “bullet clutter” is … and how to avoid it.
- Essential formatting guidelines
- The importance of bullet point brevity (but what to do if your bullet points run on a little longer)
- Why Mel Martin is a copywriter you should study
The Show Notes
- 8 Quick Tips for Writing Bullets Points People Actually Want to Read — by Robert Bruce
- Little Known Ways to Write Fascinating Bullet Points — by Brian Clark
- Mel Martin Copywriting Swipe File
Please note that this transcript has been lightly edited for clarity and grammar.
The Lede Podcast: How to Write Killer Bullet Points
Jerod Morris: Welcome back to The Lede, a podcast about content marketing by Copyblogger Media. I’m your host, Jerod Morris. If you want to get a content marketing education while you work out or while you’re driving to pick up the kids from school, this podcast is the way to do it.
In this episode, Demian Farnworth joins me to continue our series on the 11 essential ingredients of a blog post. And this is one that just may kill your content if you are not locked and loaded with your strategy. I’m speaking, of course, about bullets, and if you want to begin writing better bullet points today, keep listening.
Bullet points serve two primary functions:
- Make your copy easier to read
- Allow you to highlight specific copy points
But just because bullet points are simple, it doesn’t mean that they are simplistic or easy. There are a number of sophisticated ways to use bullets that make your copy killer. We’re going to discuss those today. And there are also a number of things that you want to keep in mind when it comes to formatting your bullets to make them seamless parts of your copy.
So Demian, let me kick it over to you. Why are bullet points absolutely necessary for online writing?
Demian Farnworth: Bullet points provide an avenue to break up text, and they’re essential for the readability part of online writing.
So you have a web page, and most people are going to skim and scan that copy. Bullets provide that opportunity that people can see something, and see something in a formatted point that’s staccato, that is short, and that is easy to scan and read. It provides an opportunity to highlight, stop the eye. Because people, if they like your headline, they’re going to hit your page, and probably read the first sentence, but before they do anything really, they’re probably going to scan it. And so bullets provide the opportunity to stop people and get them interested in what you’re writing. Same sort of idea behind subheadlines. Bullets provide a sort of landmark to stop people and get them to actually read what you’re writing.
Bullets are a great opportunity to entice and to tease people, and give them something, but not give away the farm. So for instance, I’ve seen this so many times through ads where they’re basically giving their product away. A bad bullet point is this bullet point where you kind of tell people, like, here’s the promise.
Robert Bruce talks about this in his Eight Quick Tips for Writing Bullet Points People Actually Want to Read. He talks about the two things that are essential: brevity and promise. Brevity is the part that it’s short. A long bullet point sort of defeats the purpose of doing the bullet point. But that doesn’t mean that it has to be two, three, four, or five words. It needs to be long enough so it’s readable, but it also needs to provide some sort of promise, and that’s the part we talked about, the tease.
And where I was going earlier, you’ll see people who write bad bullet points — where you make a promise and you tell people everything. For example, I wrote an article a couple of years ago called “The Dirty Little Secret to Seducing your Readers,” and I gave some examples of this book with a dust jacket that explains what someone needs to do to eat right, or a sales letter that unpacks the secret to raising brilliant children, and right in the letter they give away the sort of tips and the tactics, and then a video that demonstrates the best way to save money for your child’s college education, and then they give you all of the reasons or methods to do that, or a movie trailer that spills all the best lines, the funniest jokes, the most exciting plot twists. You’re not giving anybody anything to want. The problem is the reader doesn’t end up going any further. They don’t end up buying any of the products because they’ve been told everything.
So a good bullet point teases. For example, say you’re writing, and your readers — say they want to run a marathon in four hours, right? You would tell them you have a 17-week training program that will get them across the finish line in 3 and 1/2 hours, but will also prevent them from dehydrating, and allow them to recover in just one day with some little trick. But you don’t tell them what that trick is. Or, if your audience is dealing with crippling insecurity, you can tell them that you have a way to transform them to robust, productive human beings in seven days by thinking these three thoughts, but you don’t tell them what those three thoughts are. Say your audience wants to live to be a hundred. Then you might tell them that you’ve figured out exactly how to do just that with the right combination of exercise, food, and vitamins; but you don’t tell them what those exercise, foods, and vitamins are.
Jerod: So Demian, let me stop you really quick here, because what you’re describing, it sounds like, you really want to think of your bullet points like they’re headlines, like they’re all little mini-headlines. You talk about brevity and promise, and Robert even talks about that in his article, that obviously not every bullet point could also serve as the article’s headline, but if you think about them and infusing them with that “headline-ability,” then you’re going to be on the right track with your bullet points.
Demian: Exactly. Like I mentioned earlier, they are in essence sort of serving another function of getting to stop the reader again inside of the actual article, from the headline to the actual article. They serve the same purpose as subheadlines, the bullet points do, and so this is sort of related, too, to another topic that I’ve written about too, which is what we call these “internal cliffhangers.”
Which is nothing more than just … well, we know cliffhangers from episodic TV shows, right? Where they end the show with the hero, the heroine, in some sort of catastrophic event, and we’re not sure whether they’re going to die or not. Well, the internal cliffhanger is serving the same purpose but more subtly. It’s not as dramatic.
You see this, too, in books at the end of chapters. You know, novels. They’ll end the chapter with something dramatic happening, and you’re like, “What in the world is going to happen here?” But you can do the same thing with internal cliffhangers, and bullet points can serve that purpose too, where you sort of roll out some curiosity that makes people think, “Well, what’s going to happen next?”
Or you make a bold claim at the end of a paragraph that strikes people as audacious, and they’ll stick around to see if you can actually pull it off. You can even use humor, in which the jokes inside your knee-slapping posts are killing the readers and they want more, or you can use amazement in the sense of setting up some ridiculous scenario where your readers will wonder, “Is he or she really about to do what they suggest?”
So yeah, again, it’s the idea of the headline, of getting them interested to keep reading within the bullet point, within the copy, within the subheadlines.
How to format bullets (and avoid bullet clutter)
Jerod: Yeah. It’s not always just a list that you’re breaking apart; you really want to think about it strategically, and like you said, use as an internal cliffhanger. I think it’s also very important to make sure that you format your bullets correctly, and so let’s talk about that a little bit.
I know just from an editing standpoint, it’s one of the things that I really pay attention to, how bullet points are formatted. So for example, each bullet needs to be the same type, right? This is for the readability part of it. You don’t want to put a statistic on one line, a long explanation on the second bullet, and then the third one, kind of a random link. There’s no symmetry there. You really want to make your bullets symmetrical for the most part.
You also want to start them out the same way. If you’re using verbs, use the same tense of the verb. It’s really a stop-down place for a reader when they’re going down the bullets and you’re changing tenses, or you’re changing formats. Again, it’s about readability. Like Robert says, you want them just sliding down the page like they’re on a water slide. If your bullets are jagged at all, if there are those differences, you might stop them.
And then the other thing, you talked about brevity. And you do want to keep your bullets short. Sometimes you’re going to have longer bullet points, and I’ve seen it work where a bullet point is a longer sentence, or even two or three sentences if they don’t go on forever. But if you’re going to do that, think about your reader. And one way to make a longer bullet point work is to almost give the bullet point a headline, a 2, 3, 4-word little headline at the beginning that you put in bold, and maybe use a colon, or a dash, and then put the rest of it out there. So again, it adds another layer of breaking it up, and you can even scan the bullet points. So if you are going to use long ones, think about that to keep the readability there.
Do you have any other specific formatting tips like that that help?
Demian: Yeah, I think it’s important to realize that bullets, like headlines, aren’t necessarily sentences. So you can use fragments, and that’s sort of what you were getting at with the verbs.
But you know, you need avoid sort of bullet clutter at all cost. That’s this idea of where you have sort of subtitles, and then bullets, and then sub-bullets. So there’s this kind of cascading effect that goes on there. That doesn’t really work. It sort of defeats the purpose. So stay away from those sort of things.
Jerod: I like that term “bullet clutter.” I’m going to start using that.
Demian: Yeah, right.
One tip to improve your bullet points today
Jerod: That’s a good one. Okay, so let me ask you this, Demian, as we close up this episode of The Lede. If you were going to leave everybody with one tip, and obviously we’re going to put the links to Brian and Robert’s articles in the show notes, because those are must-reads when it comes to bullets. What other specific tips would you give to the listeners that they can use to make them better at writing bullet points today?
Demian: I think what they should do is go out and look up a guy named Mel Martin. He was a copywriter who is probably one of the greatest copywriters that nobody knows about. But he basically put his name on the marketing map through bullets.
His copy is unbelievably powerful. It’s unbelievably persuasive. His trick, though, was not just bullets. His trick was that he went for maximum anxiety. Going for the emotional jugular. Look at some of the stuff that he wrote.
He would write stuff like:
- “What never, ever to eat on an airplane: The dirtiest, deadliest airline in the whole world”
- “How to get VIP treatment in hospitals (all patients are not treated equally)”
- “Cruise ship rapes: The uncensored facts which even the news media won’t touch”
- “How to find out if someone has a past criminal record, bankruptcy, or whatever they’re hiding”
- “The little-known casinos in Atlantic City and Nevada that offer the best odds”
- “Deduct the cost of your hobby as a business expense even if you never show a profit.”
So this idea of kind of getting into our subconscious and bringing that out with these sort of fearful scenarios that excite the reader. So find him. His ads are all over the internet, just look up Mel Martin copy writer. And study his ads.
Jerod: And that fits in with the theme of this show and what we teach at Copyblogger, which is study what’s come before, because there are age-old tips and guys who have been doing it long before us that could have really paved the way. And we’ll put a couple of links in the show notes as well.
Thank you for listening to this episode of The Lede. If you enjoyed this episode, please consider giving us a rating or a review on ITunes. You can also e-mail the link to a friend or tweet about the show. We would greatly appreciate it.
Also don’t forget to listen to New Rainmaker. Brian Clark and Robert Bruce are re-defining what a business podcast can be. Either search for “New Rainmaker” in ITunes, or go to newrainmaker.com. You don’t want to miss it.
The next time Demian and I get together, we’ll be discussing another topic that is essential for the readability of your blog posts: Subheads. There is no excuse for your subheads being anything less than exquisite, and we’ll tell you how to make them that way.
*Credits: Both the intro (“Bridge to Nowhere” by Sam Roberts Band) and outro songs (“Down in the Valley” by The Head and the Heart) are graciously provided by express written consent from the rights owners.