White paper bullet points can serve many functions, but they’re often misused by people who misunderstand their roles … or who are unaware of how the conscious mind perceives them. That’s especially important in documents such as white papers intended to be viewed as a trusted source of information.

Misunderstandings about bullet points in any kind of marketing communications material usually center on a belief that humans process information logically. “The only thing that matters is the facts” they say. “Nobody has time for fluff” they insist. “People make decisions by using facts,” they assert. “Don’t do any of that ‘copywriting’ stuff. Just make it as simple and straightforward as possible. I mean bullet points. That’s what people read.”

White paper bullet points provide false economy

I can’t argue against the fact bullet points are certainly more economical in terms of time and space. That would be appealing if it didn’t provide a false economy. You see, choosing bullet points over sentences and paragraphs presupposes your audience is made up of rational creatures. That’s never the case, even when that audience is made up of engineers or financial analysts.

Humans like to pretend we’re rational animals, driven entirely by intelligence and facts. What copywriters know is that even the most scientific among us are bundles of underlying emotions. When we’re faced with a decision — whether about choosing a complex circuit board or buying a new car – our emotions actually do the heavy lifting. And those immediate emotions are outside our control. They’re hardwired into our brains. Psychologists would tell you some of those wires go even deeper, all the way down to our evolutionary survival instincts. Your ancestor escaped that sabertoothed tiger and their reaction is somewhere in your DNA.

Humans aren’t rational?

Why are we so convinced we’re purely rational? Once our emotional triggers point us in a direction, we start to gather the rational facts that support that decision. It’s a process called rationalization. Let’s say your company manufactures printed-circuit boards for technology makers. There’s an electronics engineer who is developing a product for which your circuit boards are ideal. But they won’t even consider buying it unless they develop the confidence it will solve the need they face. And confidence is an emotional need, not a logical component.

Bullet points are designed to appeal to the rational side of the brain. How could they not? They’re brief, usually fact-based, with a clear meaning, so we don’t have to think that hard. Yet the emotional animal inside is looking for safety, security, peace, happiness, love, and yes, confidence. Bullet points can’t sing, they can’t entertain, and they can’t enthrall.

Most of all, they don’t sound like people talking, and another human’s voice is one of the most powerful emotional triggers.

Words need your voice

Your marketing and communications materials stand in for you when you’re not able to deliver messages in person. To do that effectively, they have to sound like you and/or your company. They have to speak with your voice. The voice adds the emotional component that builds trust and familiarity. It overcomes objections and moves people to take action.

When you rely solely on bullet points, your company’s voice becomes little more than a robot spewing out a list of facts. Think about it: you would never stand across from a prospect and deliver raw facts about your product in a monotone voice, but that’s how the brain perceives bullet points. They lack the warmth, the intonation, the uniqueness, and yes, even the passion that enters your voice when you talk about your company and what it does.

True in business, too

Some would argue my points can’t be applicable in business-to-business messages. Nonsense! Companies don’t buy from companies; people working in companies buy from people working in other companies. The decision-makers will expect to study the facts, but they will respond far more effectively to emotional triggers. Does what you’re offering reduce their anxiety? Will it make them happier? Could it allow them to feel more confident? Will it improve the image of their business? All of those things — and the hundreds of others I didn’t mention — address emotional concerns and issues, rather than rational factors.

It’s okay to use bullet points as a tool within your overriding message, or as a support to summarize what’s elsewhere on the page, but if you rely on them as your sole form of communication you’re shortchanging your audience.

What exactly are bullet points?

When I refer to bullet points, I’m describing any number of symbols used in written materials to denote lists or collections of similar items. A bullet point may use the familiar black dot, or it can choose from an assortment of other symbols such as (and note I’m using the traditional black-dot bullet here):

  • checkmarks
  • dashes
  • white dots
  • squares
  • arrows

How bullet points are used

Within text, bullet points are generally used in one of two ways: to denote lists or options in a way that sets them apart, or to add supports to a statement. The second style is often used by political candidates, as in:

           Gordon Gullible is an honest member of the Pleasantville community.

  • Once changed checkout lanes when he realized he had 13 items.
  • Told the cashier at the 7-11 she gave him two extra nickels in change.
  • Afraid to take deductions from his income taxes.

Usually, lists are placed in bullet points to indicate they’re a set – such as a list of services from a local heating and cooling contractor – or parts of a larger entity, steps in a strategy, or examples of what’s being discussed. A different kind of list is the list of options that are available to the reader, such as:

This year, there are three choices on the ballot for mayor:

  • Marcia Fleegle
  • Hubert Veeblefetzer
  • “Slick” Gonniff

Which bullet point should I use?

There are no rules about which type of bullet point is appropriate for particular situations. Use the ones you prefer (but make sure you’re not choosing something that draws more attention than the words you want people to read).

The black dot is the most familiar type of bullet point, and what’s familiar tends to be emotionally more comfortable. Many people use the black dot and white dot together, in which the black dot carries the main point and the white denote supporting statements.

Do we buy a lawnmower or a goat?

● Goat considerations

  • Energy efficient
  • Eco-friendly
  • Smells bad
  • Manure cleaning
  • Ornery disposition

● Lawnmower considerations

  • Uses fossil fuels
  • Noisy
  • Cuts evenly
  • Easier to control
  • Pushbutton start

When would I use the other kinds?

Dashes are often used in more serious documents or emails. Checkmarks tend to be used in promotional materials with lists of features, and not surprisingly in business contexts as checklists of needs or steps that must be completed. Some people choose squares for the visual variety, or when the square is somehow related to your subject matter – such as a white paper on prepackages American cheese slices.

Finally, the arrow may be used to highlight a particular choice. Say your white paper outlines a five-step plan for operating a dairy business. You have the bulleted list of steps on every page, but you highlight the particular step you’re discussing on that page, as in:

  • Buy land
  • ˃ Buy cows
  • Feed them
  • Milk them
  • Pour in cartons

How much text should I use with bullet points?

There’s no hard-and-fast rule for the length of the copy in a series of bullet points. Generally speaking, it’s a good idea to use as little as possible. If you can convey your idea in three words instead of seven, that’s great! If you’re using full sentences, no more than one (or at most, two) sentences with each bullet point. More words do not necessarily make messages more communicative.

How many bullet points can I use?

Be careful not to have too many bullet points. People can digest a short list of bullet points, but a bulleted list with more than ten items may be hard to read. In fact, it’s best to keep bulleted lists to no more than seven items.