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Executive communications expert Dianna Booher discusses writing in bullet points

“All your people write long narratives that we have to wade through! We’d have our writing problems licked if we could just get them to jot things down simply in bullet points,” the president snapped at his partner.

“Everything can’t be boiled down to bullet points,” the older partner and chairman of the board responded.

This disagreement between the two partners of a client organization is a common one that writers often think they can solve with a simple prescribed format. But to make information easy to skim and quick to comprehend, bullet points need to be distinctive from paragraphs—not just a brainless data dump beside tiny circles on a page.

While simplicity is a great goal, keep these guidelines in mind for clarity and comprehension when using bullet points:

1) Remember that blocks of bullet points are no more readable than blocks of paragraphs. Simply setting text up in bulleted lists does not necessarily make it easy to skim. For example, consider the following document excerpt:

  • The discounting of future benefits to a present value is a theoretically correct method of value when investors are seeing a return on their investment. This method is dependent upon two inputs, the projection of the future benefits and the determination of a suitable discount rate. The Single Period Capitalization Method (or Capitalization of Earnings Method) is used when the future benefit stream is expected to change in a constant and predictable way from year to date (i.e. grow at a constant rate).
  • The Capitalization of Earnings Method looks not to the assets of the company, but instead to the income stream which could be paid to the owner. The value of the ownership interest is the amount an investor would be willing to pay today for the right to receive a certain amount of money in the future in the form of periodic cash payments. Where the annual payments are expected to be even, a projection of annual cash flows is made and reduced to present value using a discount rate reflecting the riskiness of the company as an investment.
  • Discount and capitalization rates that are developed using publicly-held data, such as Ibbotson and Duff & Phelps, should be applied to the net cash flow, sometimes called net free cash flow (dividend paying capacity) of a company. In this case, it means capitalizing both free cash flow, but also seller’s discretionary earnings, also known as owner benefit.
  • In this case, we will use net cash flow to invested capital – debt and equity. Net cash flow applicable to invested capital neither recognizes interest expense in the calculation of adjusted net income nor recognizes principal repayments and new borrowing when converting net income to net cash flow. Later, when the value of invested capital is determined, the amount of the debt to be assumed will be subtracted to arrive at the value of equity.

Did you find the above four points easy to skim and understand? The layout may technically be bullet points, but the information presented in this bulleted list is no easier to comprehend than in paragraphs.

2) Use lead-in headings for long bullets. In this example, even though each bullet is lengthy, the lead-in heading helps you skim to the exact piece of information you need to read in detail—or likewise, you can ignore those bullets you don’t need to read in detail. If the heading provides all the information you need, so much the better—and the faster for you.

  • Discounted Future Benefit to Present Value: The discounting of future benefits to a present value is a theoretically correct method of value when investors are seeing a return on their investment. This method is dependent upon two inputs, the projection of the future benefits and the determination of a suitable discount rate. The Single Period Capitalization Method (or Capitalization of Earnings Method) is used when the future benefit stream is expected to change in a constant and predictable way from year to date (i.e. grow at a constant rate).
  • Conceptual Basis of Capitalization: The Capitalization of Earnings Method looks not to the assets of the company, but instead to the income stream which could be paid to the owner. The value of the ownership interest is the amount an investor would be willing to pay today for the right to receive a certain amount of money in the future in the form of periodic cash payments. Where the annual payments are expected to be even, a projection of annual cash flows is made and reduced to present value using a discount rate reflecting the riskiness of the company as an investment.
  • Return to be Capitalized: Discount and capitalization rates that are developed using publicly-held data, such as Ibbotson and Duff & Phelps, should be applied to the net cash flow, sometimes called net free cash flow (dividend paying capacity) of a company. In this case, it means capitalizing both free cash flow, but also seller’s discretionary earnings, also known as owner benefit.
  • Equity or Invested Capital: In this case, use net cash flow to invested capital– debt and equity. Net cash flow applicable to invested capital neither recognizes interest expense in the calculation of adjusted net income nor recognizes principal repayments and new borrowing when converting net income to net cash flow. Later, when the value of invested capital is determined, the amount of the debt to be assumed will be subtracted to arrive at the value of equity.

3) Use overview statements to precede a list and inside a lengthy bulleted item. When you run into a bulleted list, it should not be a surprise. Instead, you should be forewarned with an overview statement telling what the list contains. A document composed almost entirely of bulleted items resembles your grocery bill. In other words, you’ll have to skim half way through it before you know what the list is all about. Instead, preview the list for the reader.

4) Make sure the layout suggests significance of an idea. Pay attention to font size, heading placement, and indentation. A reader should be able to glance at the layout and know how one idea relates to another—whether it’s subordinate to another idea/topic simply by its placement on the page. Notice how this bulleted list is indented under the overview statement, clearly suggesting that these decisions are subordinate:

The development of the method requires the following decisions:

1. The selection of a type of financial return to be capitalized.
2. A decision as to whether to use that return applicable to equity or invested capital.
3. The selection of a capitalization rate to be applied to the return selected.

A bulleted list should not be a bump in the reader’s road. Instead, it should help a reader glide to the end.

Dianna Booher, an expert in executive communications, is the author of 46 books, published in 26 countries and 20 languages.  Her latest books include Creating Personal Presence: Look, Talk, Think, and Act Like a Leader and Communicate with Confidence, Revised Edition. As CEO of Booher Consultants and as a high-caliber keynote speaker, Dianna and her staff travel worldwide to deliver focused speeches and training programs to address specific communication challenges and increase effectiveness in oral, written, interpersonal, and organizational communication.   www.booher.com

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18 thoughts on “Business Writing Skills: Writing in Bullet Points Can Be a Brainless Activity”

  1. As they say: Tell them what you’re going to tell them, then tell them, then tell them what you’ve told them. Still sound advice, but good to have it broken down and illustrated. Like anything else, doing it well requires time & attention. Thanks for an interesting post.

  2. Its painful at times to have to follow so much info just to get the REAL info TRANSLATION= cut the fat. Good post though.

    1. Yes, David. We have an entire hour in our business and technical writing workshops on doing just that–cutting the fat. In fact, we have 4 solid principles to create “lean” writers!

  3. Bullets are so abused, especially in presentations. I just heard a good rule of thumb from Dan Zarrella regarding the use of bullets in PowerPoint or other presentations: No bullets! Each slide should be a single thought (or one bullet, if you prefer). But if you’re going to use bullets, your guidelines are helpful to keep in mind.

    1. Mitch. True, these principles for using bullet points appropriately in written documents apply ESPECIALLY if you ever use bullets in presentations (something which should be seldom the case). A visual should be a VISUAL, not a laundry list of words.

  4. Thank you for the info, The lead-in headings really do make a difference. They make it easier to navigate the paragraphs and allow you to decide what parts of the information you are most interested in reading or which information you don’t need to read.

  5. You had me at “…Not just a brainless data dump beside tiny circles on a page.” This should be chiseled on stone tablets and hung on the wall of every business writer! (Tweeting and G+)

  6. I’m a great fan of you Dianna, you always give value to us with your posts. This one really combine in one place a lot of information and tips needed for better writing or, better, effective communication. I love the lead-in heading and font and size care in producing communicating bullets list. In general I agree on producing them with the same thoughts we use in producing presentations, but I’d like to stress that in a document you ahve to care them more since these are a way to emphasize concepts rather than jus listing items.

    1. Good point, Fabrizio! What you say in a presentation, people may forget. But what you write may have a very long life.

  7. Most people have no idea how to write in bullet points, myself included. I really like your emphasis on leadin headings for long bullets. What a difference it makes to my ability to skim for the meat!

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