Krug: Why we love list stories – allow me to list the ways
Krug: Why we love list stories – allow me to list the ways

You need not be an avid business news consumer to know that list stories are stickier than the hands of an 18-month old with a bag of fresh blueberries.

You’ve probably seen these headlines before, or others startling like them:

“Three ways passion can kill your startup”

“Five easy ways to .....

You need not be an avid business news consumer to know that list stories are stickier than the hands of an 18-month old with a bag of fresh blueberries.

You’ve probably seen these headlines before, or others startling like them:

“Three ways passion can kill your startup”

“Five easy ways to work smarter, not longer”

“Twelve things successful people do before breakfast”

“The eight industries for starting a business”

“Four big opportunities in artificial intelligence”

In full disclosure, gang, such tempting morsels were simply what I gleaned from glancing at the first scroll and a half of the Inc.com’s homepage on Monday evening.

No kidding. If I were making a list of magazines that love lists, Inc. would be in there with Entrepreneur and Forbes. Rank them 1-2-3, respectively, to capture the spirit of lists.

It’s not as if we seek out list stories. It’s not as if we must. They are everywhere.

And anyone with an interest in business stories need only open a laptop to find stories composed of bites and chunks and ranked in some arbitrary or capricious order by their authors and editors. They are mandatory. If your website doesn’t have a list story on it, Google turns you off – or so I’ve been told.

And why is it that lists fascinate us?

I’m going along with the theory put forth in a story that the New Yorker published in December titled, A list of reasons why our brains love lists,” which (without delving into a list) explained it succinctly enough.

“The article-as-numbered-list has several features that make it inherently captivating: the headline catches our eye in a stream of content; it positions its subject within a pre-existing category and classification system, like ‘talented animals’; it spatially organizes the information; and it promises a story that’s finite, whose length has been quantified upfront,” Maria Konnikova wrote. “Together, these create an easy reading experience, in which the mental heavy lifting of conceptualization, categorization, and analysis is completed well in advance of actual consumption – a bit like sipping green juice instead of munching on a bundle of kale. And there’s little that our brains crave more than effortlessly acquired data.”

So, yeah, we talented animals are fascinated by list because we’re kind of lazy.

And in a hurry. Or lazy, and in a hurry. I believe that may be a deep definition of “efficiency.”

Yeah, I’m going with that.

Not only has the author of a list story spelled out everything we might want to squeeze from a subject, but also he or she has cut it up into digestible pieces that can be skimmed like the plates of a tapas meal. Because these stories aren’t only composed of small segments of data, but also have mini headlines that lead into the data, they feed the need for speed with a shortcut to a shortcut.

We’ve got things to do. Learning new stuff – though most of us swear we can’t get enough of it – can become a necessary evil. And anything that expedites the experience is a good thing.

I delved into each of the stories that Inc.com promoted from its homepage. There is some worthwhile stuff in there. With 32 key points promised in those five stories (that’s a whopping 6.4 gold coins per story), there should be enough keepers in there to keep you coming back.

One thing to keep in mind, though, is that the typical list story is not distilled from a scientific poll or survey. In many cases, it isn’t driven by data or meaningful research in any way. A fair number of list stories are simply the opinion of the author, carefully arranged – no different than the copy that you might read an opinion piece (ahem, such as this one).

Hey, look, I think there is some value to the exercise of blasting through a list. And, without question, reading someone else’s hierarchy of prioritized stuff can be valuable – especially when you might have time to argue with that list or devise your own. Of course, our own lists are the best because, well, they’re ours.

So when I come across “Six techniques to write a better column,” you can bet that I’ll read it. And then undoubtedly argue with it in my mind.

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As always, stay classy.


Chris Krug is president of the progressive media communications firm No Limit Agency in Chicago. No Limit is a full-service agency whose practice focuses on strategy, brand management, creative campaigns and delivering unparalleled placement in the media. No Limit Agency works with some of the best-known brands in North America, and that’s not a coincidence. Contact Krug by calling 312-526-3996 or via email at [email protected].

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