A Better Way to Structure List-based Articles and Talks

We need to talk about a popular way to organise articles and speeches: Lists.

From journalists and bloggers to speakers and parents on grocery runs, everybody loves making lists. And indeed the list format offers many virtues.

Guy Kawasaki - an obsessive user of the Top 10 format - explains at the outset of all his talks: “I like the top 10 format because if I suck, at least you know for how much longer I’ll suck.”

Good point… Except the list format is often misused in a way that makes the audience forget rather than remember what you’ve told them.

If you’re a popular writer/speaker whose work people bookmark and come back to again and again, that might be fine. But if most people see your stuff just once, helping them remember is pretty important.

So let’s learn how to optimize your list for recall, by using a recent TED talk by radio host Celeste Headlee titled “10 ways to have a better conversation”:

Here’s her 10 ways to have a better conversation (compiled by super-helpful Youtube commenters):

  1. Don’t multitask
  2. Don’t pontificate
  3. Use open ended questions
  4. Go with the flow (Don’t hunt for your turn to speak)
  5. If you don’t know, say that you don’t know
  6. Don’t equate your experience with theirs
  7. Don’t repeat yourself
  8. Don’t go into the details (names, number, dates…)
  9. Listen
  10. Be brief

Let’s be clear at the outset: She’s a great speaker by all measures, and the talk is an excellent one. And yet... I struggled to remember most of her points a few minutes after I’d just seen it.

A friend of mine saw the talk weeks earlier, and when I asked her to recall the points, she frowned for a minute and recalled only one.

Why is that?

Here’s the issue: there’s no apparent logic in the way the 10 points were ordered. You could very well change the order any way you like - because they don’t form a larger, coherent narrative.

Now let's try something different. Let's weave the points into a coherent, realistic story.

The 10 ways as a story

Scenario: Imagine you’re having coffee with a new colleague one weekend. You two sit down at a table by the window. (Original # of the points are in parentheses)

  • He starts multitasking (1). He puts his iPhone 7+ on the table, face up. Messages pop in every 20 seconds and he keeps glancing down.
  • And as he’s reading messages, he starts to pontificate (2) on everything from politics to business to how stupid people are.
  • Even worse, he pontificates at length (10) for 15 minute segments without break or water.
  • And he pontificates on useless details (8) that’s irrelevant and boring
  • Even on topics he's ignorant about, he doesn't say "I don't know" (5). He goes right on pontificating.
  • FINALLY, he stops and asks for your opinion. His question? “Don’t you think I’m right?" (Close-ended questions, 3) You say “Um... yeah…" and start offering your experience.
  • He listens... for 30 seconds, but then cuts in: “I know! Me too!” He equates his experience with yours (6), even tho it’s nothing like yours.
  • Then he goes right back to pontificating. It becomes clear that he was not listening (9), he was not going with the flow (4). He was just waiting for his chance to talk again. (These two points are virtually the same and can be combined)
  • Just when you thought it couldn't get worse, he begins repeating (7) his earlier points. OMG, you thought: He’s a repetitive pontificator!

Finally, you’ve had enough, so you pretend to take a (nonexistent) phone call about a (nonexistent) sister about to give birth to a (nonexistent) baby. You slap down the $ for coffee and flee.

A LOT more memorable (and dramatic), isn’t it?

It’s more memorable because it’s organised into a story with a logical flow. And both science and real life experience tell us that stories are more memorable than random lists.

If you’re still skeptical, just listen to this talk by memory champion Chester Santos. You’ll be amazed at how much a story can improve your ability to remember: 

I mentioned Guy Kawasaki earlier as a prominent speaker using lists, but how does he actually order his?

Here’s his list for the talk Enchantment:

  1. Achieve likability
  2. Achieve trust
  3. Get ready
  4. Launch
  5. Overcome resistance
  6. Endure
  7. Learn how to present
  8. Enchant up
  9. Enchant down
  10. Use technology

He doesn’t present them as a story, but notice how #1-6 could form a story?

First you gotta be likeable and trusted, then you get ready, launch, break through resistance, and endure. And #7-10 are key skills of enchantment that will aid you from from launch to landing.

Point: the order of the list is not random. It could form a coherent narrative.

Random lists are ineffective for the same reason that people dread bullet points. When you give people a random list, the individual points float around like broken planks in a stormy sea of faded attention. 

Don’t do that. Instead, unite the points into a larger narrative.

Gather the loose planks and build a tight ship that’s heading toward a worthy destination - the new perspective that you want your audience to see.


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