Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The 5 Reasons We are Obsessed with Lists

About 5,000- 6,000 years ago a fellow named Moses went up to a mountain and spoke to God. He came down from the mountain with a list of 10 Commandments. 10 key rules that if broken, would have serious consequences.

This was an early cornerstone to the human obsession with lists. We read them practically every day and may not even notice. Since I read and write about business, a day doesn’t go by when I have not seen a list title that draws me to read an article. For example:
- 5 ways to tell if you are a good leader
- 3 things you must never ask in an interview
- The only 4 things that venture capitalist look for in a startup

I get it. Lists are interesting. But why are we drawn like moths to a light when we see those list article titles?
1. They are written by experts with the knowledge and guts to actually write a list with authority
2. They make simple what is complex
3. They give us, the reader, a feeling of control
4. They circumvent years of actually learning things the hard way – thru experience
5. They are very easy to write and they are often quoted in news articles (2 reasons, sorry)

For every good writer / blogger / journalist / facebooker who would rather live without a cell phone than drone on in engaging prose or inspiring storytelling, let me provide the 3 foolproof steps to writing a list:

1. Pick a subject that worries a certain target that they don’t have much control over:
• To businesspeople – how to ask for the promotion, leadership traits you must exhibit to get ahead, keeping your employees motivated in a downsizing, etc
• To marketers – not getting left behind in the digital world, innovate or die, how to measure whether your on-line campaign is actually working, etc
• To new mothers - ways to make sure your baby grows up healthy, getting the most out of preschool, how to avoid life-threatening illnesses in the first year, etc
• This should not take a lot of time and can be done in minutes – really

2. Then determine how many items you should include in your list. The equation I would use is that the more complex the situation and horrible the outcome of avoiding this list, the more elements should be added. (By the way, God stopped at 10, so should you). For example:
• 7 traits you will need to demonstrate to get to the Executive Suite – big issue – long list
• 2 little things you can do everyday to keep your dog happy – little issue – short list
• 5 fatal flaws to avoid when making a presentation – medium
(Tip - use of an excessive level of drama in the name of the list can be helpful – above, I chose “5 fatal flaws” rather than “5 mistakes” to give the reader a bit of a scare since it is already a scary topic and it gives the headline more juice).

3. Then write your list sounding convincing and authoritative.
- Be brief – short sentences are more convincing
- Be authoritative – state ideas as facts and don’t worry if you go to far here.
- A tool to use sparingly is the “non-empathy” tonality. That is to write as if you don’t really have time to be endlessly repeating to the world this obvious information. It provides just a tinge of guilt to the reader for not knowing this.

End with an inspiring note about someone very big who did something cool. Doesn’t actually have to follow the list, but that will help. This ending reinforces the key element and gives the reader a light at the end of the tunnel.

There you have it. Easy as 1,2,3. I think I’ll write a book…hmmm

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