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January 30, 2009

A Bullet Point (Or Three) Through the Heart of Business


One of my employees recently suggested I take a different approach to writing a client memo. This particular client, I was informed, was part of a growing trend of business people preferring to have information presented to them in bullet points – especially when the bullet points come in groups of three.


“Groupings of three bullet points are easy for a busy business person to digest,” he explained.


That may very well be, but what if I have seven points to make? Doesn’t the conscientious business leader want to get all the relevant information being offered? Or is he or she only interested in three bits at a time – not matter how important the other four may be?


I’m not sure which is more ridiculous, this or the currently popular trend of business people preferring “pretty pictures” as opposed to words. But I thought I’d give it a try. Let’s just consider it a journey into experimentalism.


Do you know what I sometimes think about other CEOs?


  • They all think alike.


  • They all try to act like each other.


  • They claim to be leaders, but they are actually the biggest bunch of lemmings you will ever see, which is why they all keep telling people to give them information in bullet points of three.


By the way, the metaphor in which we compare this information delivery method to food (digestion, etc.) is also interesting, because one way you could look at it is as a metaphor for your three square meals a day:


  • Breakfast


  • Lunch


  • Dinner


But I think of it more like this: How many primary elements does the signature part of a meal have? Three, right? Take your typical cheeseburger:


  • Bun


  • Meat


  • Toppings


See? Let’s say you’re having a pasta dish. You’re eating:


  • Pasta


  • Sauce


  • Meat and/or vegetables


Now you may be objecting at this point that I could and should have made meat and vegetables two separate bullet points, thus creating an impermissible set of four. You’re wrong. Why?


  • I decide how much information should go in each of my bullet points.


  • Pasta sounds delicious, I’m having some tonight, it will have both meat and vegetables and Yo-Yo Ma was faking to recorded music at President Obama’s inauguration.


  • I decide how much information should go in each of my bullet points, and whether it’s OK to repeat them in the same set.


It seems to me that the CEO who prefers to receive information in this way is being lazy intellectually. I’ve been to the Economic Club meetings where speakers like Thomas Friedman stand up there and talk in three-part sets of bullet points, and the briefcase brigades in the crowd coo over their rubber chicken and garnished mashed potatoes: “How profound! How wise!”


What you don’t realize is:


  • Friedman pulled from his butt the first three random thoughts he could manufacture.


  • He put bullet points in front of them; and


  • You thought it was brilliant.


This is not brilliance. This is you falling for form over substance. I could do this too. I could go around giving speeches in which I claim:


  • The world is moving to the future.


  • We’re all going to have to adapt.


  • Those who fail will not succeed.


And you would:


  • Buy my books


  • See my movies


  • Pay me $100,000 to come back and speak again.


As you should.


© 2009 North Star Writers Group. May not be republished without permission.


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