TipSheet 2: Bullet Points
When should you use bullet points? And how? Bullet points offer an easy way of presenting information in a list, but are they always a good idea? Are they always reader-friendly?
Six Tips on Bullet Points
1. Don't have too many items in a bullet list.
Three is good, four OK, five manageable (if you're lucky), more than five - think again!
2. Don't use bullet points too many times in one document.
Bullets are ideal for summarising, previewing or presenting the key points. They are used to catch the reader's eye and make information more visually accessible. If you use them too often, they lose their effect. See handout for alternatives to bullet points.
3. Make sure bullet points are grammatically consistent.
All bullet items should follow on grammatically from the head sentence.
4. Make sure the items are of similar length.
All bullet items should be roughly of the same length. Avoid sub-clauses or digressions like 'however' or additional items in brackets.
5. Choose carefully between 'blank' and 'numbered' (sequential) bullets.
If bullets are 'blank', the order in which items are presented is not important. If you use roman numerals (i, ii, iii) or letters (a,b,c) the reader may see the order of items as important.
6. Always ask: are bullets the most effective way of getting my message across?
Sometimes bullets may appear to be the best way of presenting information (for example, you have a list of points to make) but in practice they are not effective. One item in your list may turn out to be more important than all the others. Or some items may need additional explanation.
Bullets are not good for telling stories, and they are not good for describing the relation between causes and consequences. They are good, however, for giving readers a preview or overview, and for summarising recommendations.
Here is an example of bullet points put to effective use in a report:
Regarding the establishment of a base in the country, the mission feasibility report recommends a three-part strategy:
i. Initial sharing of premises with existing UNTAR mission;
ii. Immediate representations to the government of B_________ to request a permanent site;
iii. Acquisition of our own premises before end 2005.
Note: in United Nations practice, each item in the list has a capital letter and items are separated by semi-colons.