I'm not exaggerating about the three seconds . . . by the time you count 1, 2, 3, you can make your writing clearer, more friendly and more readable.

That's how much time it takes to divide a long paragraph into a wonderfully convenient structure called a "bulleted list."

Before I explain, let me take a moment to explain the problem. For today's overloaded audiences, writing that is too dense--that packs lots of ideas into a small space--creates a barrier. If a piece of writing seems too thick, people tire quickly. Readers may try to glean key points but more likely everyone's eyes will glaze over.

The solution? Nielsen Norman Group, a firm that specializes in online content, advises that writers need to "do the work for users. Prioritize and format text to direct users to what you want them to see, and to what you know they want to see."

And the quickest way to make content easier for readers is the modest little device called a bullet. Of course you know that a bullet is a typographical symbol (usually a little dot, but other shapes are possible) to organize items in a list.

Rather than having your writing go on and on, sentence after sentence, paragraph after paragraph, gray page after gray page, use bullets and their cousins--checkmarks and numbered lists--to break things up.

Whether used as a sidebar ("here are the five things you need to know about the company's new initiative"), or as part of the main text, bullets are a wonderful way to:

  • Set off important information from the rest of the text
  • Underscore key points
  • Break up long narrative text 
  • Make it easier to skim or scan 
  • Organize content when there's a list (1, 2, 3) or a process ("first you do this, then you do that. . ."

Are there rules about how to use bullets? More like guidelines. Bullets should:

  • Be parallel and symmetrical, according to Brian Clark writing on Copyblogger. Make the content under bullets about the same length; "keep your bullet groups thematically related, begin each bullet with the same part of speech, and maintain the same grammatical form."
  • Express a clear benefit to the reader. Bullets should be mini-headlines, advises Clark. "They encourage the scanning reader to go back into the real meat of your content, or go forward with your call to action."
  • Not be overused.  We've all had the experience of trying to read a document that contains one bulleted list after another. If everything is a list, it all blurs together and audience members' brains begin to fry.

All this in three seconds? Yes. Read every paragraph you've written and identify opportunities to break content apart into beautiful bullets.

The result: Your communication will be easy to navigate, giving your audience control of the experience. So people will stay with your communication long enough to get the message.