Let’s be honest. Despite the many jeremiads written about the PowerPoint-ization of the content we encounter — some of them well-deserved — when it comes to writing for business, the bulleted list is here to stay. Yes, a list often serves as a poor substitute for a series of connected thoughts. Used carefully, however, a list can be a smart way to communicate information quickly. (Of course, the items in the list should be succinct and parallel, but that’s a discussion for another post.)

Whether you’re stacking your items next to typographical glyphs or stringing them out in running text, here’s something to consider: How do you introduce your list? My teachers and textbooks always seemed to recommend a phrase like as follows or the following, plus what’s sometimes regarded as the Vanna White of punctuation marks, the colon. In general, this isn’t bad advice. But sometimes there are more artful ways to accomplish the task.

Take a look at the following excerpt from a business pitch deck. (As usual, some nouns and verbs have been altered to protect the unenlightened.)

Our corporate strategy consists of four key elements that inform and connect with each other. Together, these elements will guide where the company is headed. These elements include:

  • mission
  • vision
  • values
  • objectives

Conscientious writers are always creating lines like these to set up a list — sometimes even adding the following for extra credit. The problem here is that we have three sentences, each of which points forward to the bulleted items. By the time we reach the word include, it’s as though we’ve read three separate introductions for the list. This paragraph is begging for a little tightening work, don’t you think?

Okay. For starters, the final sentence is entirely superfluous. In fact, this is a pretty common verbal tic for writers, thanks to our overzealous English instructors. Despite what you might have learned in middle school, you often don’t need a line that explicitly states “the elements are as follows.” As it turns out, our friend the colon is not just a Vanna White, pointing out what’s already obvious (apologies to Ms. White). In fact, the colon can communicate this connection — it can, on its own, say something like “and here they are”:

Our corporate strategy consists of four key elements that inform and connect with each other. Together, these elements will guide where the company is headed:

  • mission
  • vision
  • values
  • objectives

Now to tighten the introductory copy further . . .

Our corporate strategy consists of four key elements that inform and connect with each other. Together, they guide where the company is headed:

  • mission
  • vision
  • values
  • objectives

And further . . .

Our corporate strategy consists of four key elements that inform each other and together guide where the company is headed:

  • mission
  • vision
  • values
  • objectives

For my money, this is a great place to land. We’ve ended up with an intro that’s much more succinct and a colon whose use might even qualify as elegant. (You be the judge.)

And here’s one final thought: When the items in the list are short, like these, consider whether the bullets are necessary at all. You may find that the list works just as well run back into the paragraph:

Our corporate strategy consists of four key elements that inform each other and together guide where the company is headed: mission, vision, values, and objectives.

The larger lesson here? Trust your readers and their intelligence. Whether you’re writing a case study or a crime story, you’re always building an unspoken relationship with an audience. Using subtler cues can not only make your writing tighter; it can foster a better relationship with your readers, which is bound to make them more receptive to what you’re saying.

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