Listicle or Missticle? How to write engaging listicles

Listicles — bulleted lists of information presented as an article — are a great way to engage today’s time-poor readers. But have you ever stumbled on one that feels like it’s missed the point?

You know the kind: “Top 250 PR stunts” or “61 social media tips you don’t know about”. Listicles are designed to make the information they contain accessible, but there’s a fine line between achieving that and turning your readers off – sometimes before they’ve even clicked the link.

So how can you keep your listicle on the straight and narrow? We’ve come up with a few ideas to help your listicle avoid being a “missticle” (pardon the pun). To help, we’ve even arranged them in a list…

1: Get the numbers right
The best listicles keep to low numbers. Ten would be an absolute maximum, but five or three would be better. Though numbers like 13 or 9 stand out, they do risk giving people the impression you couldn’t decide which ideas to use so just chucked them all in. Even numbers are fine – as this listicle from hubspot shows.

2: Watch your language
If you have 30 points, are they all “top”, “significant” or “best”? It’s important not to over-hype your article. Your readers will see it a mile off and likely vote with their feet. Take this CMI article , for example – no hype; just a promise to list some useful tools that’s then delivered on.

3: Find the thread
This is the one that can make the difference between a good and a great listicle. Even though you’re writing a list, it’s still important to find an arc that draws your reader in and gives them a reason to read the whole thing. In a list of top social media tools, for example, you might start with tools that focus on curation and finding content and move through to those that are more geared towards analytics and review. Or, as we did in this listicle on barriers to social in business, start with a surface issue and then dig deeper with each successive point.

It does take a careful bit of planning to write engaging listicles – short and accessible as they are, they aren’t necessarily quick things to write. But once you’ve got the format working for you, your content will shine.

You’ve probably come across a variety of listicles. Why not share the best – and the worst – in the comments below, LinkedIn or Twitter?

Creeping Britishisms

We’ve all heard about ‘Americanization’ — the influence of the US on our own lingo. But perhaps we weren’t as aware of the influence that our creeping ‘Britishisms’ have on US English.

It’s easy to think that the early American settlers took the English language with them, Noah Webster tinkered with it, and that was it. However, the reality is that the two variants are much more fluid and interwoven than that. Indeed, Bill Bryson talks in his book, Mother Tongue: The Story of the English Language, of how modern American English is actually a closer reflection of old English than modern, UK English itself.

US English — more British than you think

Some of the grammar rules I learnt at school are now considered old fashioned here in the UK, but still very much current in the US —handy when I’m asked to write in US English! So where I would still use title case in American headlines, I would most likely use sentence case for UK clients. And the serial comma I wrote about recently — something we associate with American English — is also called the Oxford comma because its use is standard for the Oxford University Press.

Recent reports have highlighted some interesting examples of modern-day language creep. According to this BBC article , words that we think of being typically American, like ‘diaper’ and ‘fall’ (the season) actually fell out of favour in the UK in the 19th century. And in a follow-up article , we learn that Americans are starting to adopt ‘autumn’ in favour of ‘fall’.

Writing for US readers

So where does this leave you if you’re writing for a North American audience? Our advice is to tread carefully when using colloquialisms, particularly when writing business collateral, but to keep your finger on the pulse in these times of person-to-person communications. If in doubt, you can always get your copy professionally localised so you know it will speak directly to your readers.

And if you want to take a deeper look at how we’re influencing our transatlantic cousins, Ben Yagoda, author of How to Not Write Bad, has devoted himself to writing an informative and entertaining blog on the subject.

Tone of voice: giving your copy the rock star treatment

Quick – what do Johnny Cash, Axl Rose, and (potentially) your next piece of copy have in common?

The answer, unless your next piece of copy is going to be performed live, is that both Johnny and Axl had very distinctive voices. From Johnny’s uniquely melancholic baritone to Axl’s falsetto roar, it’s the tone of voice that lets you know almost instantly who you’re listening to. Wouldn’t it be great if your copy got the same reaction?

Some businesses are already creating a unique tone of voice for themselves. Take Skype’s brand book , for example. Read through it, and you’ll notice that it’s – well, it’s just very readable. It isn’t written in the formal language usually reserved for brand guidelines, but at the same time it doesn’t feel too informal or self-conscious – it just reads very naturally, and their company character shines through. Better still, they opt to talk directly to the reader in a human tone of voice, even sharing a joke or two with you. In doing so they win the reader’s trust and approval – turning a potentially restricting manual on what can and cannot be done with their logo into a positive brand experience.

So how can you do that with your copy?

So often in the B2B space, copy can come across as a little dry and a little flat, so it doesn’t take a huge change of tone to put your copy head and shoulders above the rest. Knowing your company’s persona will help you to get the tone right: for example, would your company write supportively or in a way that challenges the reader? If you’re targeting specific decision makers in an organisation, you could go so far as to see what movies and books they like on their social media pages and match your tone to those. Be careful with jokes – you don’t want to upset anyone – and of course try not to create a tone that isn’t abrasive or that might put your readers off . Paying attention to reactions on social media is a great way to gauge your audience’s reaction to your tone, and moderate it if need be. At the same time though, don’t be afraid to take some risks. If you want to make an omelette, as the expression goes, you have to be prepared to break a few eggs!

Done right, your copy could brighten someone’s day, and may even make the phone ring a little more often!

So what are you waiting for? Find your voice, and share it with your customers!

Is your content driving business away?

We’ve spoken before about how you should keep your content relevant , but we’ve not addressed the dangers of not doing so. Irrelevant content won’t get read by customers or targets, of course, but it could be holding your business back in more damaging ways than that.

IDG recently released a report in which 79% of business buyers said that content relevance affected their opinion of a brand, and 55% felt that irrelevant content delayed their ability to make a decision. Perhaps most importantly, the report stated that irrelevant content made vendors 25% less likely to be shortlisted by buyers on average. So irrelevant content doesn’t simply get ignored – it actually can make your customers less likely to buy from you.

When the stakes are that high, relevant content isn’t something that’s just ‘nice to have’ – it’s a competitive necessity. It’s not enough to assume that you know what your audience thinks is relevant, either; you need to be sure. If you haven’t checked on what your audience is interested in for a while, it might be time to gather some customer insight and see if anything’s changed. If the idea of gathering insight from your customers is a daunting one, our ebook on customer insight has some great advice on how to go about it . Whatever you choose to do, it’s clear that your business cannot afford to get it wrong.

Before we get too depressed though, the good news to come out of all this is that, because buyers are frustrated with the lack of relevant content out there, by providing content that is relevant you can gain a real competitive advantage over your competitors.

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The inverted case study: starting with the results

You only have to read the two-page prologue to Donna Tartt’s The Secret History to find out that Bunny Corcoran was killed by his student friends. The rest of the novel explores the circumstances leading up to Bunny’s death, and the lasting effects it has on the group of students of which he was a part.

It’s a genre known as the ‘inverted detective story’ — not so much a who-dunnit as a how- or why-dunnit. Way back in the 1970s, the American detective series Columbo popularised this approach: the audience would see the crime take place at the beginning of each episode and know who was responsible. The enjoyment came from watching Lieutenant Columbo work it all out.

There’s a strong argument for writing case studies in a similarly ‘inverted’ way, especially as companies increasingly move away from the traditional challenge–solution–results case study structure. If you have a really great outcome or result to share — like 20% revenue growth or 30% operational savings — putting it right upfront in the standfirst is a powerful technique for hooking your audience, enticing them to read on and find out how and why it was achieved. Using an outcome in this way will give your case study much more impact than simply including it in a ‘results’ section at the end.

Imitation — the sincerest form of consistency?

When Sebastian Faulks was asked to write a James Bond novel to mark the 100th anniversary of Ian Fleming’s birth, he was lucky enough to have a copy of Fleming’s article How to Write a Thriller to hand. This helped Faulks follow Fleming’s journalistic style of writing, and even copy his routine of producing 2,000 words a day.

But a Bond novel is a Bond novel — even if Devil May Care tackled a new theme (drugs) and was set in a location never used by Fleming (Persia, now Iran). With her novel Death Comes to Pemberley, on the other hand, PD James set herself a very different challenge: to write a murder mystery — a type of novel that doesn’t feature in Jane Austen’s oeuvre — that would read like a natural sequel to Pride and Prejudice.

As a lifelong Austen fan, James had many rereadings of Austen’s work to guide her. In her novel, she successfully recreates the world of Pride and Prejudice, reflecting Austen’s narrative style and the original book’s themes of manners, morality, marriage, class and self-knowledge.

Using a consistent style, or tone of voice, and staying ‘on message’ — as both modern-day authors have done — was critical to maintaining the ‘brand image’ of the authors they imitated and to keeping faith with the original authors’ readership.

Staying on brand and on message in all your sales and marketing communications is just as critical to maintaining your organisation’s brand image with your audience — especially if you’re producing a new type of collateral. An up-to-date set of editorial, branding and messaging guidelines will go a long way towards helping you achieve that objective, by supporting the creation of consistently styled and themed content of all types across all your communication channels.

What do you think? How do you ensure your new content stays consistent with what you’ve produced before? Let us know in the comments section, or get in touch on Twitter and LinkedIn.

Cut, to keep your content relevant

When the Guardian asked a number of authors for their top ten rules for writing fiction, the responses were intriguingly varied. Many of them mentioned the importance of reading widely (although a few disagreed). Many focused on the discipline needed to stick at the task, perhaps by writing an allotted number of words a day (The number varied.) Some said, keep a thesaurus handy (others expressly forbade it). But the one point that many agreed on was that anything superfluous should be removed.

Hilary Mantel: “First paragraphs can often be struck out.”

Sarah Waters: “Cut like crazy. Less is more.”

Diana Athill: “Cut… only by having no inessential words can every essential word be made to count.”

Even though these authors were talking about writing fiction, almost any type of writing benefits from concision. Many forms of expression in today’s connected world are limited in length, whether by design (such as Twitter’s 140 characters) or custom (blog posts tend not to exceed a few hundred words). Whatever we’re writing, the key is to get the message across in the fewest, most compelling words possible, in order to hold our readers’ attention through to the end.

As Elmore Leonard so deftly put it: “Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.”

What are the most common copywriting sins?

Well, five pop into my mind instantly. All of which can be easily avoided:

Don’t be selfish:

Your audience have a choice. And if they sense that your content is all about you (‘me-oriented’ copy), not them, their choice will be to go somewhere else.

So don’t focus on the ‘I’, ‘we’, or ‘us’. Instead, construct sentences using ‘you’ and ‘your’. You-oriented copy attracts readers, keeps them interested, and cues them for action. It’s not about you, it’s about them, so focus on what your readers want, rather than simply what services you offer.

Don’t be self-absorbed:

You don’t buy from you, others buy from you. Your customers don’t really care about your business and your troubles nearly as much as you do— so keep you content focused on their business challenges. Keep it customer-centric.

Don’t be deceitful:

See selfish, above. If you don’t tell customers the truth, it’s probably because you’re selfish. How urgent can your needs be that you would sacrifice your future to get something now? Developing long-lasting and profitable relationships with customers is all about building trust.

Don’t be inconsistent:

Your customers are bombarded by information, daily; so they’re not paying that much attention. But when they do, it helps if you’re communicating in a similar way to what they have heard from you before—in terms of facts, messaging, tone of voice, language etc.

Don’t be lazy:

You should make your copy easy to read, and sometimes that means using the proper mechanics of English, such as when to end a sentence, when to use commas, dashes, colons and other punctuation. You should understand sentence structure, such as the need for a subject and a verb, how to use prepositions and conjunctions and phrases. Given that, don’t feel compelled to follow every rule of English composition. While you should not try to impress readers with your brilliance, you don’t want them to think you are illiterate.

Sprechen Sie français?

There are many fabulous translation agencies out there who’ll do an extremely efficient job of converting your text into a local language. We can put you in touch with one or two if that’s the approach you need to take.

Sometimes, however, you need something more or different.

Gimme more

By more, we mean that a translation isn’t always enough. The text needs to be rewritten in the local language to convey the same subtleties of meaning as the original—and this is not a function of language but of messaging. To illustrate: a good quality proofer would be able to correct ambiguities and inconsistencies in your copy, and may rework whole paragraphs of the original (20–30% is typical) but they’re not able to originate copy with flair; and the same is true of a good translator.

A bilingual writer, on the other hand, can take a brief about the messaging and purpose of the piece to be created and then use the original English text as source to effectively create a new piece of copy that’s fit for purpose.

Vive la différence

By different, it could be that you don’t have and don’t need the copy in English at all—so why spend time and money creating an English version? Our mother-tongue writers work to the same exacting standards as our English-language team. They can interview in the local language to get all the information they need and write persuasive content that will convey your messaging with authority.


We work as a team despite the geographic distances; you enjoy a single point of contact for your content development activity while we make sure any style preference or process changes are consistently applied across all languages. This is especially valuable for case study programmes and newswires where a uniformity of style or approach is required.

Language options

Alongside our English writing capabilities we also provide French, German, Spanish and Dutch origination. Get in touch to tell us more about what you need +44 1628 622187.

How short can a white paper be?

White papers, as I’ve previously blogged about, are nowadays as likely to address a business audience as a technical audience. This change in the audience has been accompanied by a trend towards shorter papers. The question is: how short can you go and still be a white paper?

Why is length an issue?

I don’t think the move to shorter white papers is driven entirely by the change in audience, although I’m sure that’s at least part of the reason. It’s assumed that busy business executives won’t take the time to read long papers, whereas ‘techie’ folks will. But mainly I think it’s because there’s so much information out there that everyone is trying to minimise the amount of time they ask others to invest in obtaining information from them.

This is a good instinct. There’s no reason for white papers to be an exception to the general rule of being as concise as possible. But the ‘as possible’ is important. It doesn’t mean: ‘achieve conciseness at the expense of every other consideration’. It means: ‘be as concise as you can while still fulfilling the purpose of the piece and meeting the expectations of the intended audience.’ Being concise at the expense of clarity is never a good idea. Nor is it a good idea to be concise if your audience’s expectation is for the opposite.

Be honest with your audience

When it comes to white papers, there are certain expectations. A white paper is not a blog entry, article or a sales brochure. If somebody has chosen to read something called a ‘white paper’ it’s fair to assume that they’re looking for something with a fair amount of depth or analysis. If it’s only 2 or 4 pages they may feel cheated; it’s unlikely that you can cover a topic in any sort of depth in that space, even if you cram every page with copy (which may put people off reading).

More than one survey of B2B audiences suggests that 6-8 pages is about right. Of course it’s perfectly possible to provide insight or show original thinking in 2 or 4 pages. Even a short blog entry can be full of insight and originality. If you’ve got something short, sharp and perceptive to say, by all means offer it to the world. Just don’t call it a white paper. Call it an article or an executive brief; or you might create a series of such publications called ‘perspectives from [your company]’ or similar.

What if you’ve got more to say?

If you need much more than 8 pages to cover what you want to say, consider splitting the paper in two. People will certainly read longer papers if the content is worthwhile and well-written, but if you can split your topic into two you avoid putting off those who won’t even start on a long paper; and you have the additional bonus of being able to market two papers instead of one.