Is Shorter Always Better? Why Bullet Points And Tl;drs Might Not Do The Trick

I used to think that stories were great for entertaining and keeping the attention. 

But that when it came to “functional” information, like messages sent to colleagues, shorter was always better. So people can quickly digest it and you’re not wasting their time.

That’s why, as a user researcher, I focussed on making my messages as brief and concise as possible. With tl;drs, bullet points, and emojis. Surely, that should make my colleagues take a look at my research findings, right??

But a book I recently read made me rethink that belief. And wonder: was trying to pack as much information in as few words as possible actually keeping me from getting my message across..? 

Are the lessons in the outcome, or the process?

Usually, when writing something, we have a specific outcome in mind. We want to make people put the advice into practice and/or develop empathy.

But are your main takeaways getting that done? Or are they remaining just abstract blah to your readers?

This is where the value of longer-form and stories comes in. Where you do not only describe your insights but also how you got them. 

By describing events and experiences, you show how one thing leads to another. And how to apply a piece of otherwise abstract advice in real life.

You’re also engaging the senses. By describing the situation, including the sights, smells, sounds. And, by doing so, you’re making people experience the story as if they were there. Seriously, it lights up our brains as if we were in the situation!

And this, in turn, makes the information much more memorable. It also makes it easier to apply, and helps readers to develop empathy for the characters in your story.

User tests: it’s also about empathy

Getting back to my example of the user tests: were my bullet points helping me get my message across?

Let’s think of how user tests help you build better products. They are not just great because they help teams find out what parts of a product make users trip up. But also because they help developers and designers develop empathy for their users. 

So any time they are designing an interface, they hear the voice of their customers in their heads. Helping them to look at their product from the user’s eyes, and build something that’s truly going to help them.

But a sense of empathy is hard to breed with a list of bullet points. You need to witness users tripping up over your interface. You need to see the frustration in their eyes and hear the agitation in their voice, as they’re trying to find out where the heck that Save button is.

Why it’s easy to forget about this and write vague yada yada anyways

There’s another reason why we gravitate towards short messages: we don’t realize how abstract they sound to others. 

You have to realize this: when you’re writing about something you’re an expert on it is very hard to read messages like you don’t. May it be your product, user tests, or LinkedIn’s news feed algorithms.

Like Chip & Dan Heath say in Made To Stick, the book that inspired this post: 

“When they (the experts) share their lessons — ‘Keep the lines of communication open’ — they’re hearing a song, filled with passion and emotion, inside their heads. They’re remembering the experiences that taught them those lessons—the struggles, the political battles, the missteps, the pain.”

But what if your reader did not go through all these experiences? What do your words evoke then? Will your audience still be able to get the message you’re trying to get across?

It’s all about what you’re trying to achieve

So, the next time you’re trying to share your wisdom, wonder whether a quick LinkedIn post or list of bullet points is the best way to do so.

Ask yourself: what are you trying to achieve? What would be the ideal outcome when someone reads your post? Are short bullet points going to help you achieve that goal?

Or do you need to tell more about the context? The journey? Make people experience your message via a story?

And try, as best as you can, to be aware of your own expertise and knowledge as compared to those of your readers. Show your text to someone and ask them to say out loud what pops into their minds. It might well be a revelatory experience.

For if you want to know more…

I’m kind of aware that this is still a rather abstract post… (not taking my own advice here, am I?) 

But reading this was eye-opening for me, and I hope I’ve been able to get the message across to you as well 🙂

I also recommend reading Made To Stick by Chip & Dan Heath! Not just for copywriters, but anyone who needs to get their message across. Which is, basically, everyone. 

I’m planning on diving more into storytelling techniques in my next posts, as I’m currently diving into it with books on screenwriting and Masterclasses by the one and only Neil Gaiman (which are terrific!). If you’re interested in that keep an eye out for my next posts…

If you have any feedback or things to add I’d love to hear them as well, of course! 

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