The Tyranny of the Top Ten List … (or: 3 Habits to Start Improving Your Writing) … (or : 2 Ways To Approach Learning) … (or: The One Thing You Need to Know About Lists)


Lists help the instructional designer…

  • Gain attention
  • Structure ideas
  • Encourage discussion
  • Reinforce learning

..and if you want to understand what’s behind those bullet points, read on…

Habit #1:  Beware of Empty Calories

It’s trite and obvious… yet we, as readers, fall for it anyway.

"We are all individuals." -Life of Brian

“We are all individuals.” -Life of Brian

“3 Ways to Start Improving Your Life!” shouts the link…  or the glossy magazine cover…or the book cover…. and we feel compelled to click/flip it open.

Inevitably, we are disappointed once we read the article/book in question. The promise of quick and easy enlightenment is once again unfulfilled, and we search onward.

When it comes to the delivery of learning, as a trainer I regularly face a tyranny of the Top 10 List, i.e. PowerPoint slides with bulleted lists of items pretending to be instructional material.  There are too many slides in too many decks with too many bullet points.

Yet, somehow, when I flash those slides onto the overhead screen, I often see the faces of the learners light up — “ooh… a list!”  — but, depending on the list, the momentary rush of interest may fade just as quickly.

Gummies-WormsThe Top 10 List appeals to our love of informational snacking, but ruins our appetite for healthier, more nutritious mental meals that require real chewing and digestion.

..or as Tufte-the-PowerPoint-slayer puts it,

“There are many true statements about complex topics that are too long to fit on a PowerPoint slide.

What gets left out is the narrative between the bullets, which would tell us who’s going to do what and how we’re going to achieve the generic goals on the list.

What this means is that we shouldn’t abbreviate the truth, but rather get a new method of presentation.”

Edward Tufte, Information Visualization Geek

In the field of instruction, on the spectrum of “Sage on the Stage” vs. “Guide on the Side,” the Top 10 List is where the Sage has taken over and the audience has abdicated their responsibility for learning. Any natural tension that existed between entertainment and education has been lost — the cause of entertainment has won the battle — and the instructor has become simply a speaker, a storyteller.

ok energy drinks

“Everything is going to be okay.”

The Top 10 List attracts us with its packaging and then we gulp it down quickly… while it feels like we are “using our time efficiently,” we are in fact expending our time on empty mental calories.

If we habituate ourselves to this sort of “learning,” before long. we’ll find ourselves fatter and dumber for it.

Wo ist das Rindfleisch?

Wo ist das Rindfleisch?

For the group of learners that enjoy these lists, we do damage by feeding their habit.

As for the “healthful eaters” — the group of learners who have learned to see through the banality of contrived lists –we do damage to our own credibility.

So the first lesson of the Top 10 List is this:  Recognize it as a great way to attract initial interest… and then insist that there be some meat… some substance and purpose behind it.

Habit #2: ..But Don’t Be a Nutrition Fanatic

There is an opposite kind of tyranny, which is the instructor who insists that all learning must be heavy, fibrous, nutrient-rich information. No, that slice of zucchini-carob-carrot cake does NOT cut it… I want my Devil’s Food Cake.

It would be a mistake for a writer to say, “never present a ‘top tips’ list,”  just as it would be foolish for a reader to say, “refuse reading any article that uses the cheap trick of being titled  ‘x ways to get y.'”

In other words, don’t be a health food bully… give the kids some candy… or better yet, some high quality dessert.  I’m thinking dark chocolate…. 70% cacao at least, perhaps filled with a rich truffle ganache… (read more here:  6 Health Benefits of Dark Chocolate) ..but I digress…

sea salted dark chocolate

This blog post brought to you by Ghirardelli Intense Dark™ Sea Salt Soiree™

Taking these two suggestions — Habits #1 and #2 — together, it reads something like this:   Use those “Top 10” Lists in your reading, writing and instruction, but recognize them for what  they are: pedagogical amuse-bouches…. small bits of instructional strategy used to refresh the learner’s attention and ease into a deeper conversation… much like using humor, a quotation, an image, etc.

Habit #3:  Give Your List a Purpose

The key to getting the right balance of Habit #1 and Habit #2 is to have a purpose in mind when deploying a list.

A Top 10 (or any other number other than the total number of fingers on a dominant primate’s hands) List can be used in a purposeful and even creative manner.

Here are just 7 of the ways a list can useful for authors, teachers and instructional designers:

  1. Provide a “hook” by making information seem easier to digest
  2. Break-down bigger, complex concepts into a series of smaller, simpler, essential facets
  3. Provide a structure or prompt to aid memory & recall (especially when combined with other mnemonic strategies)
    • (3.1) Organize information  so that it can be more easily referenced later
    • (3.2) Use the list number itself as a symbol or reference point (e.g. “The Seven Deadly Sins of List-Makers”)
    • (3.3) Introduce a job aid / checklist that will be used at a later time in the performance context
  4. Force the author to be concise
  5. Prioritize
  6. Spark ideas
  7.  _________________ (yeah, you saw that coming)

No, the above list is not presentation-quality… it has yet to undergo the process of recursive abstraction that will yield — presto — the summary list that appears at the top of this post.

Yes, there is a power in the making lists for the designer, as a way to structure information, as a way to encourage categorical thinking, and as a scaffolding for brainstorming… and they can make information seem less intimidating to the reader/learner. Usually not all of those things at the same time, mind you.

Indeed, there are often two ways that people approach learning:  learning as education, vs. learning as entertainment… but of course, it’s a false dichotomy.

As Marshall McLuhan said,

“It’s misleading to suppose there’s any basic difference between education & entertainment.

This distinction merely relieves people of the responsibility of looking into the matter.”  

Marshall McLuhan, Prophet

spoonful of sugar

The one thing you need to know about lists is this:  They are the spoonful of organizing sugar that makes the learning medicine go down… in the most delightful way.

Just take it easy on those spoonfuls, okay?


About danspira

My blog is at: My face in real life appears at a higher resolution, although I do feel pixelated sometimes.

Posted on May 19, 2013, in Blogroll, Information Design, Instructional Design, Learning, Metaphors, photography, Writing and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Maria Konnikova’s excellent take on lists:

    ..and a delightful follow-up piece:

    (Note how, apart from the ironic headlines, Konnikova sticks to a slightly abbreviated bloggy version of the meandering New Yorker magazine style of long form writing, aka, the “Damn, I just turned the page and still don’t see a black diamond signifying the end of the article… oh look, the author just stepped back in time in the middle of what could otherwise be a sequential narrative, so I’m not sure where we’re headed now” style of writing, which I associate with quiet evenings with a cup of tea and a glass of scotch and a comfortable couch… as opposed to the espresso-fueled laptop/mobile reading experience…wait, where was I…ah yes, headlines promising easily-digested mental fuel, emotional hooks and structures that support cognitive processing)

  1. Pingback: These Six Sentences Reveal How Quickly Your Brain and the Internet have Grown Together | Dan Spira

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