The table of contents: RIP?

Blog post

It’s easy to see why creators of thought leadership might not be fans of tables of contents: They invest thousands of hours creating hundreds of perfect pages, only to see their work summarised in 10 simplistic headings that give the reader a licence to jump straight to number seven. Or, simply, to decide that there’s nothing worth reading at all. Tsk.

Whether for that reason, or in response to the changing behaviour of readers armed with scroll buttons and clever browsers, the table of contents seems to have died something of a death recently: Most thought leadership now leaps straight to an executive summary, a key insights page or a snazzy graphical summary without a care for something as parochial as a list of contents.

We think that might be a mistake.

Before we leap to the defence of the humble table of contents, it’s worth acknowledging that they don’t always work. Often they’re just a bunch of quirky and cryptic headlines that fail to either inform or invite, and which may actively dissuade someone from reading on.

But done well, they’re quite the opposite. A good table of contents puts your storytelling on display, hooking readers in, telling them what value they’re going to get from investing their limited time in finding out what you have to say, and managing their expectations so they know what they’re not going to get.

It may have behavioural science on its side, too: German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus’s Serial Position theory posits that we’re far more likely to remember the first and last things we’re told than anything else, and the more catchy-sounding “three-tell” approach holds that you need to tell readers what you’re going to tell them, then tell them it, then tell them what they’ve been told.

You have been told. And told. And told.

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