Five reasons I distrust numbered lists

When it comes to capturing the attention of modern human beings, who are evolving into Tweeting, blurbing, headline-grazing busybodies, conventional wisdom states that numbered lists are the way to go. The ease of topic sentences and a universally understood numeric format allows the reader to skim and not waste a precious moment on an unnecessary word, line, or anecdote. Don’t get me wrong: I appreciate quick summaries and easily digestible content as much as the next person.

But if you’re trying to write something that truly stays with your audience, demonstrates your expertise, and presents information in a compelling and innovative way, you should ditch the numbered list. Here are five reasons why:

1. The number is arbitrary.

Have you ever read a top ten list and gotten the sneaking suspicion that by #7, the writer is grasping for ideas? Good advice rarely fits into a square box. Since many of us read numbered lists to learn something—the 10 most common punctuation errors, the 20 best tips for event management—we’re generally searching for a comprehensive snapshot of best practices. But humans are drawn to round numbers, and so while a compilation of 17 tips is fine, a list of 20 is indisputably better. This strategy leaves a gap between offering the most valuable advice and creating an aesthetically pleasing article title.

2. The audience is general interest—and therefore harder to engage.

Buzzfeed has done more for numbered lists than David Letterman. And Buzzfeed’s content, while not exactly deep, is broadly entertaining and therefore appeals to a wide audience—one that enjoys humorous article titles that set up a one-dimensional joke (see: “18 Times Nick Jonas’ Arms Literally Changed the World”). The payoff is more in the title rather than the content itself. Because of its titles and easy-to-digest content, Buzzfeed gets plenty of traffic. But if you want to make a lasting impact, you’re better off focusing on the substantive ideas that appeal to a specific audience—not anyone trolling the Internet for photos of a Jonas brother.

3. They reflect the author’s subjective opinion.

If the list includes words such as “best” or “worst,” you can assume it’s based on the writer’s opinion. There are some exceptions when statistics are involved; for example, the Billboard 200 chart is based on sales. But Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 greatest albums of all time is certainly up for debate. Personal taste, subject area knowledge, and a number of other factors can mar the reader’s reception of your numbered wisdom—and leave you standing alone in your love for Creed.

4. They get page clicks but not necessarily thought followers.

Headlines, like book covers, are the first thing to grab a potential reader’s attention. This is why low-quality articles sometimes get a lot of Internet play: their headline is inescapably appealing (see: “18 Times Nick Jonas’ Arms Literally Changed the World”). Perhaps that’s why, as a person who esteems writing that sheds light on new thought processes and perspectives, I appreciate the feeling of contentment I get after reading something that reshapes the way I think. And perhaps that’s also why I’m biased against numbered lists—because I’ve yet to read one that’s provided that aha moment. They’re all skin deep.

5. Ummm…

Case in point: I’ve reached the end of my suggestions. You’ll have to make do with four.

I don’t mean to suggest that numbered lists have no value; they are often a helpful way to organize simple content. But thought leaders whose goal is to go beyond simple—to reach a higher level of engagement with ideas that can deliver a real benefit—are better off thinking more deeply about the audience they want to engage and the value they can deliver. This effort usually requires stepping outside of a rigid framework, otherwise you may end up with a fluffy list half-full of useful content and filled to the brim with photos of Nick Jonas.*

*Not that I’m complaining.

Brittany Williams

Brittany is the editorial director at Leff. She is passionate about helping clients tell their stories through incisive, fact-based narratives. Every once in awhile, she takes a break to muse on rhetorical devices, grammar, and content strategy on the Leff Communications blog. Follow Brittany on Twitter @britpetersen.

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