Villing & Company

Bullet Points Aren’t Always Silver: The Contrarian Strikes Again

Point: According to Microsoft, the human attention span today is 8 seconds, down from 12 seconds in 2000.

Counterpoint: According to the Pew Research Center, book readership is largely unchanged since 2011.  (And the median length of a novel is just over 64,500 words.)

At the most fundamental professional level, I am a writer. With that comes a certain bias towards prose. I have a running discussion with one of my colleagues who believes in the conventional wisdom that nobody has the time or desire to read anymore. And what they do read must appear to be brief and scannable. She even shared with me an article entitled “Let the 4 ‘friendlys’ be your content creation guide.” The author posits that content must be:

  • Mobile friendly (no argument there)
  • User-friendly (duh)
  • Time-friendly (depends on your definition of time; see note about book readership above)
  • Regular friendly (whatever that means)

Where the author of this article and I part company are the last two points. 

For time-friendly, he encourages text be formatted for scan ability to the left side of the page in an “F” pattern with key points “distilled” into bullets. “Numbered lists, bullet points and subheadings make for easy, swift scanning.”

For “regular friendly,” he says writers should not be a sales robot; they should let human personality shine through. He goes on to encourage content that promotes goodwill and creates genuine relationships.

Does anyone besides me see a contradiction between these two imperatives? From my experience, it’s rather difficult to be human, personable and engage in genuine relationship building with a series of bullet points and a formulaic approach to formatting.

Imagine, if you will, this time-friendly alternative approach to Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities:

The times were good and bad.  They featured:

  • Wisdom
  • Foolishness
  • Belief
  • Incredulity

It was…

  • The season of light
  • The season of darkness
  • The spring of hope
  • The winter of despair

Maybe we were going to heaven, maybe not…

Well, you get the idea.

In conclusion, let me share with you the quote from another contrarian, Howard Gossage, one of the most interesting of all the practitioners during the mid-century Golden Age of Advertising.  (Forgive me if you’ve heard this one before.)

“Nobody reads ads. People read what interests them, and sometimes it’s an ad.”

I rest my case.

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