Five Ways to Drive Your Audience Wild

Lists with catchy headlines can help you capture people's attention and deliver your content, just like in the world of magazines

Magazine editors have long known the secret for enticing you to open and to buy their publications—create actionable lists with catchy headlines. Check out some of the most popular magazines on any given week and it's likely you will read headlines like these: 10 Reasons the Bad Economy Is Good for You (Redbook), 5 Rules for Perfect Heart Health (BestLife), 9 Flu Fighters (Prevention), or 30 Sexy Conversation Starters (Cosmopolitan).

If you're serious about content and you want your audience to pay attention to yours, take a cue from headline writers and start incorporating lists into your business communications. Business writing specialist Kevin Ryan recommends using numbered lists in areas like e-mail correspondence, because "It creates an action plan for your readers to follow and makes it easier to read and remember your message." Try to create lists for steps, processes, or topics. Here are five tips to improve your lists.

1. Use lists everywhere. Lists don't just sell magazines. Lists invite your audience to pay attention to all manner of communication: Web copy, e-mails, presentations, and blogs. If you have five points to make in a 20-minute presentation, use a list to introduce your subject. Use lists in the subject line of your e-mail. Turn your blog content into a list. One of the most famous corporate bloggers is Sun (JAVA) CEO Jonathan Schwartz (Oracle (ORCL) recently announced its intention to buy Sun for $7.4 billion). Schwartz keeps his writing concise and thought-provoking, and he uses lists from time to time. For example, one recent post was titled "Understanding Sun in Three Easy Steps."

2. Write short headlines. Some research has shown that the most opened e-mails contain subject lines under seven words. I recommend the same for your headlines in all your content—e-mails, presentations, and blogs. For example, the following headline is too long and too boring: "The top reasons our new strategic initiative will improve business efficiencies, reduce overlap, increase productivity, and raise gross margins." This headline can be replaced with "7 Ways We Beat the Competition."

3. Keep lists between three and seven points. It's common for magazines to create huge and odd-numbered lists: "101 ways to…" or "The 22 things you need to know about…" For most presentations, e-mails, and blog posts, keep your lists short, no fewer than three points (a list of two doesn't make much sense), and no longer than seven. Seven has been found to be in the upper range of the number of items people can recall in short-term memory (there's a reason why phone numbers contain seven digits).

Some of the best presentations are divided into three topic areas. When Microsoft (MSFT) CEO Steve Ballmer opened his keynote at the 2009 Consumer Electronics Show in January, he said his presentation would review the "Three areas of opportunity" for Microsoft. For presentations of 30 to 60 minutes, keep your lists on the shorter side. In the case of e-mails or blogs, where readers have the luxury of taking more time with the content or printing it for later reference, longer lists are appropriate.

4. Create sub-lists. It's O.K. to create sub-lists within groups of lists, especially if the content is dense with information. Steve Ballmer's CES presentation may have been divided into "Three areas of opportunity," but when he arrived at a discussion of Microsoft's line of Web services and applications, Ballmer introduced the topic with "We have three big announcements on Windows Live…"

When creating sub-lists within an e-mail, letters work best, separating the main list from supporting points. For example, in an e-mail titled "7 Ways We Beat the Competition," the first point might be "Our product is better." Since this claim requires substantiation, the proof could be divided into several lettered sub-points:

a) Twice as many units sold

b) More favorable online reviews

c) Higher customer satisfaction

5. Don't overdo lists. Magazine covers have one or two lists, but not many more. Even Prevention magazine, which has lists in every issue, will balance those lists with headlines like "Fake a Tan by Tomorrow." The headlines are still short and catchy, but avoid numbered action items. Write too many lists and you risk appearing too contrived and predictable. Not every e-mail, blog, or presentation lends itself to a list. Don't force it.

Lists will entice your listeners and readers to pay attention to a presentation, open an e-mail, or read your blog post. Of course, once they do, you had better serve up valuable content. But a good list will take care of the first step—grabbing hold of your audience.

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