Five reasons people like lists

While skimming news headlines, surfing the web or browsing book titles, you may notice a common writing technique: “Top 10 Ways to Burn Fat,” Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, and 1,000 Places to See Before You Die.

The technique is using lists and it’s a quick and effective way to create headlines and organize content in a way that piques curiosity and encourages readers to take a closer look. It’s a format I often recommend when teaching our lawyers and professional staff how to write client alerts, newsletters, and blog posts that grab their audiences’ attention and keep them reading past the email subject line. It also works for event titles, proposals and thought leadership reports.

Consider this: if you were a general counsel who received alerts from two different law firms with the following headlines, which one would you read?

1. Dodd-Frank Act Takes Effect
2. Three Ways the Dodd-Frank Act Will Impact Your Business

Here’s why using lists work:

1. They are bite-sized. Organizing that information into a list helps reduce information overload and provides a simple structure that is easy to digest. It’s why I think The NA 5, a weekly summary of five news items from our North America offices, is one of our Firm’s most effective internal newsletters. (To subscribe, contact NA Communications Specialist Mary Kate Martin.)

2. They are scannable. As creatures of the information age, we are bombarded with more content than ever. So what do we do? We skim. Organizing your content as a list makes it easier for readers to scan, and if your points are compelling enough, get them to slow down and engage. (Like you’re doing now, right?)

3. They pique curiosity. Titles with numeric lists evoke curiosity because it’s human nature to want to know what’s on that list. A report about supply chains called, “Five Steps to Managing Third-Party Risk” is likely to make a client wonder, What are those five steps? Are we following them? How easy are they to implement? Hmmm…I better read this report to find out. Congratulations! You’ve just landed a captive audience.

4. They get to the point. When receiving an alert or newsletter about a recent legal development, a busy client wants to know three things:

  • What happened?
  • What does it mean for me?
  • What do I need to do about it?

That’s why the headline, “Three Ways the Dodd-Frank Act Will Impact Your Business,” is more likely to catch their attention than, “Dodd-Frank Act Takes Effect.” The first headline tells them you’re going to get right to what’s most important to them.

5. They speak directly to your audience. When you’re organizing your content into a “Top 5” or “Top 10” list, your writing automatically becomes more focused on your audience. For example, if I were to tell you, “Write a client alert explaining the top three ways the Dodd-Frank Act will affect our banking clients,” you would have to decide what to include and what to leave out. How would you do that? By focusing on exactly what you should be focusing on: the concerns of your target audience.

Publishers across all disciplines use lists for a simple reason: they work. Using a list imposes discipline on the writing process. Rather than writing in a vacuum, you are having a conversation with your readers. As a result, they are more likely to listen. And after all that work you put into writing that important proposal, client alert or email, isn’t that the point?

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