Formatting is the art of arranging text so that it draws (or repels) the eye of the reader. And good formatting helps the reader both read — and trust — your message.
Have you ever received a message that was one giant block of uninterrupted text? Most of us look at the first line of the block of text and either look away or shudder in horror. We don’t want to read it because we can’t see the end of it.
Now look at a message that uses short paragraphs broken up with ample white space. Just looking at the message you can see that the author thought carefully about the main ideas and how to arrange them. The author gave you space between each main idea so you could clearly see the multiple thoughts and have room to digest each one.
Paragraphs aren’t the only means of directing the reader’s attention. Other strategies include:
- bullet points, which indicate a series of information and allow you to glance at the first bullet and quickly return to that list when you need it.
- bold font, which tends to be the most effective at drawing the reader’s eye to the middle of the text without changing the volume the reader hears in their head.
- underline font, which can be difficult to see and doesn’t draw the reader’s eye to words in the middle of the paragraph but can work to create emphasis if you trust the reader to read most of the words in the message.
- italics, which tend to turn the volume down so that a reader hears italicized words as a whisper.
- ALL CAPS, which turns the volume up to shouting — mostly because we’ve trained our brains to put an extra emphasis on capitalized letters.
One of the most effective strategies for drawing the reader’s eye to information is to highlight it in yellow or green. According to Guy Deutscher in his book “Through the Language Glass,” the words for colors entered most languages in the same order: red, black and white were first, then yellow and green, then blue, purple and orange. The theory is that black and white have the greatest contrast, and red is equivalent to life or death, so those words came first. Yellow and green came next because of their relation to food. So, if you want to draw someone’s attention to some information in the middle of a message, highlighting in yellow or green makes them look because their brain hopes the color indicates food. If you don’t want to draw attention but do want to show difference, changing the font to blue, purple or orange can signal difference without being distracting.
While formatting techniques like bold, underline, italics and changing the color can be helpful, don’t go overboard. Only use one or two at a time and one or two in a message. Using too many techniques all together or throughout a message can be distracting and encourages people to look away from the message.
The goal is to use these formatting tools to draw the reader’s attention to the most critical information so that their eyes jump to it while they are reading and they can find it easily if they need to return to the message later.
Remember, the first line of each paragraph is the most useful place for information since most people are likely to read those words. Bold can work to draw their attention to the middle of a paragraph just as well as highlighting in yellow or green. And bullet points are a great way to draw the reader’s attention to information that they may need to refer to at a later time.
Put yourself in the shoes of your reader. Think about how you would want that information presented and deliver your message in a way that piques your audience’s interest, doesn’t discourage them from reading on and empowers readers to quickly understand the key takeaways. Thinking about how your audience will consume your message — and formatting it in that manner — illustrates that you care and will help you build trust in your written communication.
About the Author:
Jenny Morse, Ph.D., is the president and CEO of Appendance, a Colorado-based company that provides business writing consulting. Appendance’s new online course, Better Business Writing, teaches participants what to do before they write and how to do so more effectively in business contexts.