The Flashing Christmas Light Technique
for Writing Irresistible Bullet Points

image of christmas lights

Step into a bookstore, find the business section, and pull out a book. Then flip the book to the back cover.

Here’s what you’re sure to find on virtually every business book: A selection of well-chosen fascinating bullets.

And there’s a reason why bullets make it to the back cover of a book.

It’s because you tend to read the title, then the subtitle (on the front cover) and then flip the book to get the gist of the book.

Yes there’s the yada, yada, yada about the book on the back cover. Yes, there’s an index. Yes, there’s a contents page.

But you ignore most of the yada, yada, yada and head for the bullets.

You do it because bullets are like flashing Christmas lights

They flash because of their ability to create curiosity. And not just a little bit of curiosity, but a massive amount of curiosity.

So here I’ve got a book on my desk that’s about podcasting. And at the very top of the back cover are the following bullets.

  • How to find and download audio and video podcasts to your computer or portable media player
  • How to develop, format, produce, edit, encode, and upload your audio or video podcast, including in-depth information on using music legally
  • How to set up an effective audio studio, including the complete and updated “The podcast studio buyer’s guide”
  • How to create great video, including tricks of the trade such as the law of thirds, the line, and the three-point light technique, as well as tips on casting, locations, scheduling, and more
  • How people are marketing and making money through podcasting in the era of Web 2.0

Notice how they’ve put the entire guts of the book in those five simple points?

And notice how each of those points started with a “how” statement?

So let’s tackle those two ideas one at a time

Idea 1: notice how each of those points started with a “how” statement?

It doesn’t matter what the line. If you put the word ‘how’ before it, it instantly becomes interesting and gets our curiosity going.

Or you can always add a “why,” which does the same trick.

For example:

I went to Ireland this summer.

versus

How I went to Ireland this summer.

or

Why I went to Ireland this summer.

Another example:

I make butter chicken.

versus

How I make butter chicken.

or

Why I make butter chicken.

Of course you won’t use a sentence that’s as boring as the ones above, but you do get the point, right? The only question that remains is how do you get all of these sentences. And the clue lies in Idea 2.

Idea 2: Notice how they’ve put the entire guts of the book in those four or five lines?

So take your entire book or course, or speech, or whatever. Split it up into distinct parts.

For example, my product The Brain Audit has seven sections, so it could naturally be split into seven distinct bullets. Or you could also select just five.

Then pull out something from each part to describe the benefit the reader could get from that section.

So for The Brain Audit, the bullets read like this:

  1. How to instantly get (and keep) the attention of the customer.
  2. The roller coaster sequence (and why it matters when selling).
  3. How to create a uniqueness factor in a matter of days.
  4. How to know if a customer is really interested in your offering.
  5. Why benefits and solutions aren’t the most effective way to sell.

Each of those bullets represents a different part of the book

And each of them has a simple “how” or “why” structure to get and keep attention.

In fact, this same technique that you see at the back of a book can be used for any persuasive piece of writing, be it a sales page, an event, a speaking engagement, product, or service.

The fundamentals are simple

Take your product/service. Split it into five or seven parts and pull out the most important highlights or benefits.

Take those highlights or benefits and put a “why” or “how” before each one.

And there you have it: a collection of fascinating bullets.

And that’s how you make your product/service or course stand out. Like flashing Christmas lights.

About the Author: Sean D’Souza offers a free report on ‘Why Headlines Fail’ when you subscribe to his Psychotactics Newsletter. Be sure to check out his blog, too.

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  1. Hey Sean,

    Bullet points are like a headline-worthy summary of your content.

    Not only does each bullet have limited space, thus requiring you to simplify and create maximum-impact one-sentence-summaries of your content, but the clean, organized layout makes it easier to read as well. Much nicer than 7 sentences one after another, or 7 one-sentence paragraphs.

    In fact, just like writing out the headline first (like Brian said, make the promise before you deliver it), writing out your book/project into a summarized headline-style bullet point list will create the promise for you to deliver and act as a navigation for you writing your book/project.

    Bullet points are called that for a reason – the irresistible headlines hit you like a bullet :)

    Thanks for the great bullet point resource,
    Oleg

  2. Why I agree. How I think this makes total sense. Why this approach doesn’t fly with comments.

    Is it working?

  3. Great post, but shouldn’t the title of the post have been, “How the Flashing Christmas Light Technique Lets You Write Irresistible Bullet Points”?

  4. Ha, nice point John. However, four-line titles get a little cumbersome. ;)

  5. Do you get bonus points for noticing the secion “So for The Brain Audit, the bullets read like this” has a bullet point that does not begin with how or why?

    It is generally considered good form to use a stem sentence after a heading to introduce the bullet points. So for the section above, it should be the following:

    The Brain Audit

    The bullets for the brain audit read like this:

    1. How to instantly get (and keep) the attention of the customer.
    2. Why it matters to use the roller coaster sequence when selling.
    3. How to create a uniqueness factor in a matter of days.
    4. How to know if a customer is really interested in your offering.
    5. Why benefits and solutions aren’t the most effective way to sell.

  6. I don’t know…I skip the how tos and the whys. It annoys me when every bullet point starts with the same words. It feels like a waste of time. I like it much more when the sentence before says something like “In this book you will learn how I:” followed by the bullets.

    Great advice about breaking your work into sections to generate the points, though. Thanks for a thought-provoking article!

  7. Simple, Effective, and to the point.

    “How” easy is that? ;)

    Give a summary to your readers, or on your products page, let potential customers see what’s in it for them, and maybe you’ll hook em and keep their attention long enough to sell them on your idea/product/service.

    Rob – LexiConn

  8. A good tip for writing a review – it will look less boring and introduce the perks of the tool or book. Thanks for breaking my writer’s block :) *off to make a bullet list for a gadget I’m reviewing*

  9. Thanks for the useful bullet tips, Sean.

    A former supervisor of mine told me to always write odd-numbered bullets. So I should have 3, 5, or 7 bullets, but not 4 or 6 (and so on). (But of course, you can’t have just 1 bullet, duh!)

    She said they just read better that way. Are you aware of any reason why an odd-numbered list is better than an even-numbered one?

    Thanks in advance,
    Lexi

  10. There are many, many ways to write bullet points. However, that’s not my goal in this article. My goal is to get you to get you off the ground quickly by giving you one or two ways.

    However, I did find that despite telling clients that they needed to write “How” or “Why” bullet points, they still struggled a bit, because they weren’t sure what to write about.

    So breaking up your topic into chapters is a very good idea when you’re stuck. And then looking at the sub-chapters (or the content in each chapter).

    Which means that if you picked up a book—almost any book—from the shelf, you could open the contents page and write a whole bunch of bullet points simply based on the contents page.

    Of course this applies to a course, or training, or sales letter as well. And yes, you could—technically speaking—use this for your article as well. So if you summarised your article, you could take lines from every paragraph and sum it up quite nicely at the end.

    The key is to have the core tools of bullet point writing.
    And those core tools are:

    1) The “How” and “Why” (at the very least).
    2) The fact that you don’t ever have to invent the bullet points. It’s all there in your content. You just have to pull it out by examining the the flow of your content.
    3) Pull some facts from Chapter 1, Chapter 2, Chapter 3 and so on. Just pull the facts. Then turn them into bullets.
    4) Use this technique for reviewing products, writing articles, writing the back cover of your book or writing salesletters.

    Bullets are the backbone of your writing. If you can learn how to write bullets, you will move faster in your own writing, and the big bonus is it will help you sell products and services a lot faster too.

    :)

  11. @Lexi: I’m not really sure how people come up with these facts. For example, I’ve known people say:

    1) Write odd number of bullet points.
    2) Have bullets alternate in normal and bold fonts.

    These are all ideas by some one at some point in time. And it probably worked for them at the point of their creating a salesletter or some direct mail piece. But the question is always less about “WHY” something would work. And “HOW” it would work consistently, across countries and across various situations.

    The reasons for why they may come up with these concepts is a factor of readability. So when you write your bullets, you need to look at it, and play with it. Does it look more readable if it alternates in bold and normal font? If it does look more readable, then use it.

    The book I have in front of me (actually two books) would look absolutely horrible with the alternation of bold and normal font. So the rule (if it ever was a rule) doesn’t apply.

    The other thing about bullets is that they needn’t be restricted to one line. I’ve written one point and taken it across three-four lines. Now some purist may say that’s not a bullet. Well, maybe…if you say so. My job is not to wonder about the rules or whether something should be done this way or that. My job is to see that the message gets across and the customer responds.

    The customer response is important.
    So the answer to your question is: Put the bullets on the page itself. If it’s on a book, put it on a book. If it’s on a page, put it on a page. And then see how it looks. If you think it works as 3,5, or 7, then use 3,5 or 7. If it works at 4,6,8…then use it like that.

    I don’t think there’s anything other than ‘readability’ at stake here. So focus on the readability, rather than the sheer ‘rule.’

    :)

  12. One worry I sometimes have about bullets, is that they let the reader get away with not reading the post. I find that when I come across a heavily bulleted article, I’ll skip most the the substance and just enjoy the bullet points. However, I may take the time to read a full article with an enticing headline and then text…

  13. Simple and actionable post…right up my alley. I admit that bullets are a weak spot for me, but I’m working on it :)

    btw, love your site too, been reading it for a few weeks and so glad I found it.

  14. Thanks Sean;
    * I have bullets everywhere on my files, gives it a neat, clean, condensed look that I love.
    *They also help summarize everything into a more palatable form for our time-constrained, information-overloaded readers.
    *I have my copy of ‘why headlines fail’ and I’m learning about “how” to see diamonds where others see rocks

  15. Great article Sean,

    I think a light just started flashing in my head. I’m going to go through and check all my old blog articles!

    Pat
    Inner Beauty Photography

  16. This is very good. At least TWO things I must remember when doing any copywriting: The BENEFITS and the CHRISTMAS LIGHT BULLET POINTS !

    Thanks Sean!

  17. This depends on where you put the bullets…
    If you put it right at the top, then it will get read first. Remember that this is not a bad thing. Every book puts bullets on the front page/contents page (in a way).

    So it’s a good intro to the information. I’d rather someone read the bullets than nothing. :P

    One worry I sometimes have about bullets, is that they let the reader get away with not reading the post. I find that when I come across a heavily bulleted article, I’ll skip most the the substance and just enjoy the bullet points. However, I may take the time to read a full article with an enticing headline and then text…

  18. Hey Sean,

    I too am a big fan of bullets (unless they are coming from a gun…then not so much.)

    I think one thing people forget, is that visual layout is very important in how people absorb and process information. It’s why text books fail so badly. No one buys a text book for casual reading (at least no one I know anyway.)

    It’s also one of the reasons I don’t like feedburner. It doesn’t format posts properly so long posts are tough to read. Smart bloggers get around this by chunking their material using bullets and numbers. It makes a huge impact and could be the difference between someone being a loyal reader or just not following at all.

    And of course by tying in your strategies they could make them that much more effective. Thanks for sharing my friend.

    Dean
    Quit Bit (Ideas worth quitting)

  19. I’d say you need to bring up the ‘problem’ again in some cases. Don’t just focus on the benefits alone. The customer’s brain is attracted to problems, so be sure to put some problems in your bullets as well.

    e.g. How to stop struggling with writer’s block and start writing on demand.

    This is very good. At least TWO things I must remember when doing any copywriting: The BENEFITS and the CHRISTMAS LIGHT BULLET POINTS !

  20. This great post. This is a great way to get the most important info right into your readers face.. Good for our ADD society :)

  21. The other mistake that people make is that they think bullets should be just one line. Now this depends…

    What are you writing bullets for?
    1) Is it the back cover of your book?
    2) Is it to promote a product on Amazon.com?
    3) Is it to sell something off a sales page?
    4) Is it to summarise your chapter? Or your article?

    Bullets are not built alike.

    There are times when my bullets are just one line. And then there are times when they’re not. I’ve posted an example of some “bullets” that are several lines long. See how they work even better than a one liner.

    Note: I can’t control the formatting here on this blog, so you may not see it as I would like it displayed. But the point that I’m getting across is that “rules” don’t always apply. The situation is what you need to consider when writing bullets. And if the situation demands more than one line, then heck, go for it :)

    See example below:

    # The three main systems of writing. And how to pick a system that is suited to your own individual personality. This means you can be who you are, instead of simply copying someone else.
    # Spotting an instant disaster before you write the article. You’ll learn how to spot if an article is useless, simply by analysing parameters in your headline. This alone saves you hours of frustration and toil of going round in circles.
    # Why headline-writing is critical. Most articles are read, or deleted solely on the basis of a headline. If your reader doesn’t get attracted by your headline, the rest of the article is almost never read–leading to a massive waste of time on your part. (This applies to both online as well as offline articles, by the way).
    # How to get the reader to slip-slide (yes, there’s no better word) right from the headline to the first fifty words. And what to put in those first fifty that captivates the reader, and almost compels them to read the entire article.
    # How to then take the reader past the first fifty words. The secrets to connecting thoughts, and disconnecting thoughts. And how connectors and disconnectors, when used with structure in mind, create intense drama and flow.
    # How to create a grid that speeds up your article writing by 50% or more. The grid also enables to you to construct an article that suits both the reader who reads every word, as well as the reader who scans.
    # How to never run out of ideas. You’ll have so many ideas, that you’ll realise that writer’s block is really a myth.

  22. 1) Write odd number of bullet points.
    2) Have bullets alternate in normal and bold fonts.

    I do this for readability. With a few bullets, an odd amount just presents better to the eye. With a long list of bullets, the alternating shades keeps the eye from just sliding past some of your most powerful copy.

    It’s all about getting more copy read. That’s how you get higher conversions, assuming a great offer to start with.

  23. Sean, Great bullet points ;) People like everything condensed and to the point. Nobody likes to fish around for information, they have zero patience. Bullet points solve this problem.

  24. Sean makes a very good point that it has to pass the “gut” test. So his 2nd bullet point breaks parallelism and doesn’t start with the how, but it just feels stronger than the rewrite that makes it follow the rules. (To me, and I’m guessing to Sean’s buyers as well, because Sean’s pretty smart about that.) :)

    In other words, it’s smart to learn the rules, but don’t be a slave to them.

  25. Yes and no.

    It depends on the medium again. It depends what’s being ‘sold.’ Is it an article idea? Is it a product worth $50? Is it a service worth $10,000? I’ve had clients print out 35 pages of a sales letter and read it all…

    The bullets are reverse-headlines in a way.

    If you look at the headline of an article, then it draws you in. Then text gives you depth and the bullets create a summary. The same would apply to a salesletter. But in a sales letter not only does the customer give you more license to write more, but the customer will also read more.

    I’m always wary about “rules” because everything we see around us is based on someone else’s experience and product/price etc. It’s not based on your product/price/situation. So when these rules start flying around, it makes me very skeptical.

    e.g. I showed a few of my clients a video and it was about five minutes long. And they said: It was too long for the Internet. Videos should be short. About two minutes. Well, right after they complained about the video, I showed them another one. This one was about 12-13 minutes and they watched it all. And lapped it up. And were so excited at the end of the video.

    So we then go one step further, right?
    The medium is video. And we’re saying: test the medium. But in this case, the video was packaged in a much better way that held their attention for 12-13 minutes. So yeah, it depends.

    I think people have zero patience for things that bore them :) (heh, heh).

    People like everything condensed and to the point. Nobody likes to fish around for information, they have zero patience. Bullet points solve this problem.

  26. You’ll also notice that right after I told you to write ‘how’ and ‘why’ bullets, I put in an example that did neither. ;)

    And I think that’s what Sonia was referring to…

    # The three main systems of writing. And how to pick a system that is suited to your own individual personality. This means you can be who you are, instead of simply copying someone else.

    # Spotting an instant disaster before you write the article. You’ll learn how to spot if an article is useless, simply by analysing parameters in your headline. This alone saves you hours of frustration and toil of going round in circles.

  27. Bullet points are great. They are like teasers of what is really to come. They get you thinking and asking questions. But they do not reveal anything more than what you need to know.

    They give you a quick summary of what you can expect from a book or an article. Bullet points can be a great way to summarize your own ideas and use them as a planning tool.

    Until you can create simple bullet points summarizing your key ideas of the article, you should hold off on posting it :)

    Best,
    Tomas

  28. I have been using numbers rather than bullet points for my list. After reading this post and seeing the difference a bullet makes I am going to try and switch to bullet points in the future. Or are two not interchangeable.

  29. I do not think that to understand these things you will have to take the format of any books.

    You should think of yourself and think what those words which can create curiosity among your readers and go for it.

  30. Consistency is important for understanding content. Doing things the same way each time helps our readers find the meat over the fluff.

    The “how” and “why” could easily be expanded to include the other standard questions, giving you:

    * Who
    * What
    * When
    * Where
    * Why
    * How

    If you do this in a consistent format, it will be clearer to your readers what questions they have that you are answering.

    Remember that the described is a useful technique for the following:

    * Introductions. Tell them what you are going to tell them. It prepares our readers.
    * Summaries. Tell them what you told them. It reinforces what you told them.

    A final point: there is an exception that allows you to use a single bullet point, although it probably isn’t applicable to the subject of this post. The Microsoft Manual of Style for Technical Publications permits them when you are giving a series of separate instructions on the page. Use the single bullet point on one or more sets of instructions to maintain consistency with all the other instructions. Besides, using an ordered or unordered list consistently teaches your readers where the instructions really are. (And, as I said, probably isn’t applicable to this article.)

  31. One of things I do when I write bullets is divide them by blocks of 5 or 7. I’ll make 5-7 points and then break it up with a paragraph. Then 5-7 more, then insert a chart/ diagram/block of copy to help drive the points home.

    Don’t know about you but when I see a Great Wall of China list of bullets my attention gets a little weary and I start wanting to scan.

    I learned this from the Yoda of Copywriting, Clayton Makepeace and it just rubs my gut level thinking just right.

    The idea of using table of content and book jacket bullet examples is awesome Sean.

    Besides having books here on the desk, I’m looking into the eyes of Fergie who’s on the current cover of Cosmopolitan magazine.

    I like to supplement “How” and “Why” with the genius ideas this mag gives me. For those of you deprived of Fergie’s smoldering come-hither stare, here’s a sampling of bullets they used this month…

    HIS #1 SEX WISH
    71% of Guys Crave This
    Move. You’re Gonna Want
    to Drop the Magazine
    and Do It on the Spot

    Get Rid of
    Muffin Top
    7 Belly-Blasting Tricks

    Is Stress
    Turning You Into
    a Raging Bitch?
    Help on p. 164

    It’s my personal belief each of those could be re-worked for use in almost any pitch and it lends spice, allure, and variety to your bullets.

    Thanks Sean for being so involved with your post. I know you’re helping a lot of people indirectly by addressing other peoples questions. Great value added touch.

  32. I love it when the comments become a post in their own right. Good stuff.

  33. Hey, I am a relatively new visitor,
    so as a new visitor, let me give you some blog feedback,

    1. Every time I visit Copyblogger I learn something new that helps my blogging. It is turning into a ongoing Blogmasters course !

    2. I learn as much from the comments as the blog post itself.

    3. I enjoy the writing style of the bloggers here. They are fun to read, not tedious.

    4. You allow me to put links in my comments.

    5. The engaging content on Copyblogger is free ! What more could a grown man ask for?

  34. That’s what I do too. And yes, I often have dozens of bullets in a salesletter :)

    One of things I do when I write bullets is divide them by blocks of 5 or 7. I’ll make 5-7 points and then break it up with a paragraph. Then 5-7 more, then insert a chart/ diagram/block of copy to help drive the points home.

    Don’t know about you but when I see a Great Wall of China list of bullets my attention gets a little weary and I start wanting to scan.

  35. I’m still waiting on the Christmas Lights graphic above to flash. ;)

    Good write.

    I’m a big fan of starting off bullet text with power verbs and having a lead-in with “how to” or “why” above it.

  36. Great thoughts.
    I’m about to start writing another e book and these points will really help with that.

  37. This leads to an interesting topic.

    How many of you actually start writing your bullets before you even write a word of your book? Or a word of your salesletter?

    I won’t start much before writing the bullets in a very raw form. Otherwise I go round in circles. Do all of you do that, or is it just me?

  38. I like to start with the concept.

    Really got this hammered into me by a man named Robert Stover who learned it from Jay Abraham.

    Jay instilled in him the mantra “Concept Over Copy”

    Then I went out and learned a crap load about this from screen writing.

    I look for an idea that will generate excitement or at the very least interest in every ideal prospect that hears it.

    If you choose the wrong concept or fail to develop it properly, you’re fighting an uphill battle.

    Jeffrey Katzenberg who worked with Disney and went on from there to run Dream Works with Steven Spielberg said,

    “We must never diverge from one principle. The idea is king. If a movie begins with a great original idea, chances are it’ll be successful, even if it is only executed marginally well. However, if a film begins with a flawed idea, it will almost certainly fail, even if it’s made with A talent and marketed to the hilt.”

    When I heard this I thought of Jay’s quote and made the direct connection with what we do as marketers.

    If I remember right, this was one of the conditions that the late Billy Mays set up as being absolutely necessary for him to have before he’d ever do an informercial.

    The concept had to offer something new, fresh, compelling, enticing, intriguing and had to be able to be communicated in two sentences, what’s known in screenwriting as your Log Line.

    This picky nuance made sure Billy was blabbing at you from your T.V. for months at time selling glop and gadgets raking in millions and millions of dollars for himself and his clients.

    I’m operating without a net here but one winning concept that keeps creeping into my mind from the world of marketing is “Get Fit While You Sit.”

    That’s the idea Yanik Silver built an exercise product around. That concept sets all the rest of the copy elements in motion. Another concept could’ve been “Easy fitness” but everyone can agree that’s hardly compelling.

    All that to say that if you get yourself a head nodding hook, angle, concept down first, you’ll be rolling that positive momentum into the rest of your copy.

    This way of thinking should also be a prerequisite to creating a product or service.

  39. With blog articles, I usually have to know the bullet points mentally before even starting, since articles can only hold a certain amount of points before they get bloated and off topic.

    But, when I’m trying to be more creative and hack at what I really think about a topic, I just stream it out and then find the bullet points in the flesh draft. I find that the creativity/circular thinking and logical/more bulletted thinking have to constantly push one another further along for me to be happy with the results.

    Thanks for the great tips Sean! It’s a powerful image to remember the technique.

  40. Thank you! This was such a helpful article on many levels. I can remember the formula with ease…

    bullets = how/why

  41. good points, but any chance you could convert this to fiction? If somebody else asked already, sorry.

  42. Good points. Bullet points and especially neatly done bullet points gather the crux of the matter and present them in an easy to read form and most people like reading and digesting things quick. hence they look for bullet points which will tell them everything in a nutshell.
    But the suggestion of using a how or, a why in a bullet point is indeed valuable.This is a way will create inquisitiveness and people will identify it with some of their problems thus inducing them to read on or, explore further.

  43. It is nice but not easy to newbie like me. Anyway, I need some more time to learn this. Thanks

  44. This is really interesting and I think it could be useful for various writing techniques. Articles can drag on but I like those that have bullet points and have found that using ‘hows’ and ‘whys’ within a title are excellent ways to attract people to a post or particular item.
    Thanks for providing examples Sean, makes it easier to see a contrast and how it should be done.

  45. Sean,

    Loved this article. I’ve long been advocating that people use more bullet points in their copy/content. It’s not lazy writing, which I think a lot of people believe. For all the reasons you listed above, it’s strong writing.

    P.S. I am listening to holiday music on my stream right now. They just played that Trans Siberian Orchestra song that Miller Lite used to make a commercial. So now I’m seeing bullet points flash in unison to that music.

  46. Very interesting how direct repsonse copy principles are infused into effective web copy….

  47. Effective web copy is direct response copy. No matter your goal — sales, leads, traffic, links, retweets — you’re after a response.

    It gets easier the more one understands that. ;)

  48. The reader finds it easier to read a copy if it looks organized. Bullets must show direct and concise points or else, why should one format it that way?

    Great read! :)

  49. Excellent post and it not only made me rethink how we write, but also how we talk