Business books and articles that take a "list" approach to explaining success or greatness have a long history. Probably this is because lists are easy to understand, and people don't have time anymore for things they can't get right away.
One hugely popular and pioneering example of list literature is Steven Covey's "The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People," published in 1989. Of course, I haven't read it, because I don't have time to read a whole book. Articles take less time to read -- and to write, of course. I don't have time to write a book either.
More recently, the proliferation of websites devoted to any and all things has resulted in a huge demand for new content, and not surprisingly, the list literature format has proven a very popular one for articles that appear on these sites. Some of the examples I have seen recently include titles such as "The 10 Qualities of Wildly Successful People" and "The 15 Qualities of Great Leaders."
As a business school professor, I thought I certainly should be able to write a list literature article.
Here is my list of the Seven Qualities of a Great Article about the Qualities of Something Great:
1. Great articles about the qualities of something great have between 5 and 10 qualities listed.
This is important. If there are too few (fewer than five), the advice presented will be seen as lightweight and trivial. If there are too many (more than 10), people will have trouble remembering them and will dismiss the entire thing as being too complicated. Remember, people are too busy for anything too substantial, but want to feel like they are spending their time on something worthwhile -- even if it isn't.
2. Some of the qualities should appear to have a basis in respected research. This is particularly important if part of your audience is from academia.
3. The qualities listed should either make people think "Yes, I do that" or "Yes, I could do that if I wanted to." The reader should always be made to feel that they are right on the cusp of breakthrough greatness in whatever area the article is about.
4. The qualities listed should never involve actual work, accomplishment or critical thinking.
People are very busy and don't have time to do anything extra. Well, if they were actually all that busy, they wouldn't have time to read these types of articles, but that's not my problem. In this case, perception is reality, so most readers must be able to feel they already have the listed quality, regardless of their level of experience, intelligence or education.
5. Each quality listed should be one-of-a-kind, distinctive and unique. There is no place for repetitiveness in an article of this type.
6. None of the qualities listed should be redundant with any of the other listed qualities. There is no need to make the same point twice.
7. The overall topic should be something that sounds really impressive but isn't really measurable. This might be the most critical aspect of all. The last thing you want is for people to accurately assess whether they measure up -- since, of course, most people won't.
Then, the article will simply annoy them and make them feel bad. If that happens, they are unlikely to click on the advertising that has been placed in your article. Remember, the advertising is the only reason your content is being published.
8. The qualities listed in the article should be equal in number to the title of the article.
Richard Franklin is a clinical assistant professor at the Joseph M. Katz Graduate School of Business at the University of Pittsburgh; firstname.lastname@example.org, on Twitter @ProfRFranklin.