Hyunjin Song and Norbert Schwarz summarize the implications of some recent psychological research on format this way:
Any variable that facilitates or impairs fluent information processing can profoundly affect people’s judgements and decisions. [Writers] are therefore well advised to present information in a form that facilitates easy processing: if it’s easy to read, it seems easy to do, pretty, good, and true.
Let’s explore this using a memo with a simple plan for reducing energy costs in an office as an example.
Simplicity of typeface determines perceived simplicity of content
The actual content — every single word — and its arrangement is the same in Memo A and Memo B.
But we can predict readers of Memo B will believe the content is difficult to understand or the recommendation is difficult to implement because of the typefaces chosen.
- Memo A uses MS Word’s old defaults: Arial for headings and Times New Roman for body text.
- Memo B uses Forte for headings and Mistral for body text.
If readers considering the proposed recommendation could choose between reading Memo A or Memo B, Memo A would win out nearly every time. That’s because typefaces influence how fluently information can be processed. We equate easy to read with easy to understand or do.
Familiarity of typeface and words determine perceived risk within content
Another problem with using the typefaces in Memo B has to do with their lack of familiarity. It turns out that we associate risk with the unfamiliar.
Here’s another example of this principle. The content of Memo A and Memo C is identical except Memo A uses the word “reduce,” while Memo C replaces that word with “curtail.” Nothing else is different between the two memos.
Yet we can predict that readers of Memo C will believe the recommendation is more risky than readers of Memo A because of the use of the less familiar “curtail.” In this case, we’re talking about a difference in style rather than format. The point is that we equate easy to read –whether because of familiar typeface or word choice — with safety.
Legibility determines perceived truthfulness of content
Memo D is exactly the same as Memo A except that it is less legible because of the low color contrast between the black text on the blue background. We can predict that readers of Memo D will believe less in the truth of its content than readers of Memo A. We equate easy to read with true.
In sum, your format choices influence what readers think of your content. Is it difficult or easy to use and understand? Is what you’re talking about risky or safe? Is it the truth? All excellent reasons to learn a few principles for choosing a successful format for your documents. My video tutorial (see the link below) covers the basics of using typefaces, page layout, and lists.
Thanks to Cheryl Stephens for making me aware of this article in The Psychologist. The original is worth a read to learn more about the research behind successful formatting choices.
- The video tutorial on format (proswrite.com)