Why do we love lists? Here are 5 reasons.

You see the headlines in Twitter all the time: “Top 5 WordPress themes for small businesses.” “10 ways to build your personal brand.” The lists go on. Especially right now when best-of and worst-of lists are everywhere. Not to be outdone, Time Magazine created a list of lists, the Top 10 of everything in 2009.

We can’t resist clicking on these headlines. Why? What makes lists such a compelling way for bloggers and magazines to deliver content? And if we know this is true, how can more organizations take advantage of the format to get their messages read and remembered?

Not long ago we created a page on redhat.com called “Why Red Hat?” Obviously the page was designed to answer a pretty straightforward question–so we developed the content as a list of 10 points. These 10 reasons help describe the Red Hat value proposition to our customers. Each point has a single key sentence in bold to make the page easy to scan and process.

In the past we’ve had pages for this purpose that might have included longer paragraphs of content written linearly. But one of the things I realized in the development of this list was that it actually took longer to create than if it’d been written in the traditional long form. That’s good news. Because what was really happening was that we were shifting effort toward the creator and away from the reader.

If the popular links on Twitter are any indication, it may be time well spent.

So why do lists work for delivering content? Here are my five reasons:

1. Lists are definitive.
Where linear paragraphs are abstract, lists are concrete. Lists create a very clear expectation in the reader’s mind. They know what they’re getting when they click. If it says there are five ways, you will see five ways. Not six. Not 10. The content may appear more complete and credible because of it.

And like a progress bar that shows you’re on step 3 of 6, a numbered list also helps readers form a reasonable expectation of how long the content will take to read. When you’ve read the last one, you’re done.

2. Lists take a position.
Readers love content that has something to say. It begs readers to challenge it and compare the opinions of the writer to their own. A list automatically forces the writer to take a stand. It leaves the ideas that are most important less open to interpretation.

This is even more true if the list is ranked. Which explains the popularity of top 10 lists. Every year I create my own top 10 list of favorite albums. Even before you see the list you know: 1. The number one album is what I thought was the best thing I heard this year. 2. Each album that follows wasn’t quite as good as the one ranked before it. 3. If it didn’t make the list, I either missed it or it didn’t quite make the cut. All of which is entirely a matter of one person’s preference and very arguable.

3. Lists feel useful.
Readers love tips and ordered checklists for ways to go about doing something. Lists make great formats for guidelines because they feel very straightforward and simple. Not treading any new ground here–the idea is as old as the 10 commandments.

There’s something about a list of tips or suggestions that makes me want to bookmark it and save it for later because I know that content is going to be very easy to return to and review. I know I’m not going to have to read the whole document to find the key concepts.

4. Lists help readers remember.
One of the best ways to remember what we’re reading is to process concepts into smaller, more manageable chunks of information.

When the content is already organized in a list format, it feels like the hard work of organizing and processing that information has been done for you. And while this places more of the burden on the writer, but requires less from the reader.

One of the all-time great books for communicators, Made to Stick, does a great service to readers by providing a five-page Easy Reference Guide at the end. Read the book, and you’ll want to come back to the guide again and again.

5. Lists help readers scan.
Communicators may not always like it or even want to admit it, but traditional definitions of reading no longer apply.

Here’s the reality: We’ve become scanners. We have too much information to sift through and too little time. We bounce over one paragraph after another looking for salient, relevant information.

The list breaks up the standard paragraph format and makes the job of the rushed reader that much easier. The extra space between lines give eyes space to move, and extra bold sentences give them a place to stop.

The good news: Readers came to your page for a reason. The list just makes it easier for them to find what they want and stay there.


4 Replies to “Why do we love lists? Here are 5 reasons.”

  1. Great post. The list format definitely drives clicks, and for good reason according to Umberto Eco:
    “The list is the origin of culture. It’s part of the history of art and literature. What does culture want? To make infinity comprehensible. It also wants to create order — not always, but often. And how, as a human being, does one face infinity? How does one attempt to grasp the incomprehensible? Through lists, through catalogs, through collections in museums and through encyclopedias and dictionaries. There is an allure to enumerating how many women Don Giovanni slept with: It was 2,063, at least according to Mozart’s librettist, Lorenzo da Ponte. We also have completely practical lists — the shopping list, the will, the menu — that are also cultural achievements in their own right.”

    Via @brainpicker: http://bit.ly/GE8aSu

    Thought you’d appreciate that poetic description!

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