Whether writing a business memorandum for a client, structuring a personal blog, or putting the finishing touches on college paper, it is almost always important that a document is considered readable by its audience.
Not many clients will look forward to reading a business memorandum that is written with long paragraph and lacks bullet points which highlight key findings. Similarly, many blog viewers may find that blogs without headlines to organize content are unappealing. Likewise, professors may take off points from a paper or report that is cluttered without headlines.
While it is important for one’s content within a document to be clear and concise, the way in which is it presented (the document design) is important as well because this allows the audience to navigate through the document easily. It also helps make one’s message easy to understand; hence, why this blog post is being written and this topic is so important.
According to Peter Cardon (2016) in Business Communication: Developing Leaders For a Networked World, people tend to be overwhelmed with messages. When the information is presented in a readable and organized way, the audience is more likely to understand the author’s intended message by reading more carefully (p. 157).
In this way, this blog post will list and elaborate on five ways that one can improve readability (of a document) with a document’s design. This blog post will also include a real case that demonstrates the benefits of doing so.
There are five ways to improve readability with a document’s design.
Here are five ways an individual can improve readability with a document’s design:
- Use headings
- Highlight key words and phrases (expressions)
- Use bullet points and numbers for lists
- Use white space wisely
- Use simple formatting (Cardon, 2016, p. 170-173).
Headings are a useful way to help organize content that is very compact or difficult to read. In this way, headings help readers identify key points. Additionally, it allows the reader to navigate the document for specific information because of the organization of content (Cardon, 2016 p. 171).
A business resource from Gonzaga University noted, “Use section and paragraph headings in your document to separate topics and enhance readability. Busy readers can scan headings to get an overview of your document and quickly find information they are interested in reading” (p. 1).
For example, a blogger wrote an article about twenty foods that cause cancer. The blog has headings that organize the article by the types of foods that cause cancer (such as meats, desserts, dairy, and grains).
Readers that are only interested in certain types of meats that cause cancer can easily navigate the blog to find this information because it has headings.
However, when using headings, it is important to note that one should use the same text format (font) for headings to lessen confusion. Additionally, the headings should match with the content that is being discussed below the headings (Cardon, 2016, p. 171).
If the heading says five vegetables that cause cancer but discusses meats instead, the reader will be confused and won’t understand the message of the blog post.
Highlight key words and phrases (expressions).
Highlighting can be used as a way to emphasize words, phrases or ideas (Cardon, 2016, p. 171). When I say highlight words or phrases, I don’t mean literally but instead by using the bold, underline or italics tools.
For example, if an individual wants to emphasize the heading, Five Vegetables That Cause Cancer in a blog post, he / she may bold it so that it would read Five Vegetables That Cause Cancer. The bolding of the headline notifies the audience that this heading is important.
Additionally, when using the bold, underline or italics formatting tools, it is most effective when used as necessary and when each tool is used once at a time. If an individual uses the bold, underline and italics formatting tools too often, it becomes hard for the audience to distinguish what is and what is not important (Cardon, 2016, p. 171).
For example, if an individual who wants to empathize the amount of sales a company generated writes “The third quarter sales amount for 2015 was $325,000, which is an increase from last month’s sales,” instead of “The third quarter sales amount for 2015 was $325,000, which is an increase from last month’s sales,” then the reader will assume all of the information in the sentence is important since it was italicized.
However, in actuality, the sales amount information was the only important part.
Additionally, assume an individual that writes a business memo uses headings to outline the memorandum objectives. He / she could use one formatting tool to highlight “Objectives” or use two formatting tools to highlight “Objectives”.
The use of bold instead of bold and italics together is more effective because two formatting tools can seem overbearing to the audience (Cardon, 2016, p. 171).
Use bullet points and numbers for lists.
Bullet points and numbered lists also help the author to better communicate because it allows the reader to organize, understand and remember information (Cardon, 2016, p. 172).
An article by Carolyn O’Hara (2014) entitled How to Improve Your Business Writing, included a quote by Kara Blackburn, a senior managerial communications lecturer at the MIT Sloan School of Management in which she stated, “‘You can have all the great ideas in the world and if you can’t communicate, nobody will hear them’” (p. 1).
Similarly, Gonzaga University noted, “Bulleted and numbered lists greatly enhance readability due to their conciseness and the additional white space that results from their use” (p. 1).
If an individual writing a summary on key findings from an experiment uses a paragraph format instead of bullets or a numbered list, the audience may find the information confusing or hard to understand.
The use of bullets or numbered lists summarizes the information for an audience so that they can easily comprehend and retain the information from the document.
“Read your writing through critical eyes, and make sure that each word works toward your larger point. Cut every unnecessary word or sentence” (Carolyn, 2014, p. 1).
According to Roger C. Parker (2012) in 7 Readability Tips for Designing Engaging Content, “Long lines of type (i.e., lines of type that extend from the left-hand to right-hand margins of a page) can be fatiguing to read because the reader’s eyes have to make multiple jumps from word group to word group across the page” (p. 1).
In this way, bullet points and numbered lists are ways to cut down on unnecessary and long sentences.
Use white space wisely.
Believe it or not, an audience may make assumptions about a document based on the amount of white space it has around the content. While documents with limited white space around the text appear to be clutter and jumbled, texts with too much white space appear to be incomplete (Cardon, 2016, p. 173).
“Empty space on a page is called white space. Good writers use headings, bulleted and numbered lists, and shorter paragraphs to increase white space and readability of their documents” (Gonzaga Univrsity, n.d., p. 1).
Also, Parker (2012) stated, “Pay particular attention to line spacing. Provide enough inter-line spacing, or leading, to make it easy for your readers to recognize the distinctive shapes created by the letters in each line” (p. 1).
In this way, it is important that one has the appropriate amount of white space around content so that the document appears to be organized, appealing and of importance
Use simple formatting.
One of the best ways to help improve readability with a document’s design is by making the visual format simple (Cardon, 2016, p. 173). Try to avoid any type of confusing or distracting formats.
Everything from short sentences, bullet points and numbered lists, italics, bold, and underline formatting tools as well headings, sub headings and appropriate white space, makes a document’s design simple and easy for an audience to navigate around.
The importance of readability with a document’s design can be applied to a real life example.
O’Hara (2014) discusses a case that demonstrates the importance of improving readability with a document’s design using David McCombie, CEO of McCombie Group (a private equity firm).
McCombie was a management consultant at McKinsey & Company and realized that the writing style he learned at Harvard Law School wasn’t useful for communication at a business executive level. McCombie was told that he had difficulty expressing his key points effectively within business communications (O’Hara, 2014, p. 1).
In order to be more effective, McCombie asked some of his colleagues for their past presentations and reports to learn the important elements of format and style. This helped McCombie to improve his writing and the readability of his documents which has allowed him to become an influential individual within business.
Based on the communication skills McCombie acquired, he was able to write a book on his private equity firm entitled The Family Office Practitioner’s Guide to Direct Investments (O’Hara, 2014, p. 1).
In this way, McCombie learned how to better communicate to his audience by improving the readability of his documents. McCombie accomplished this by requesting to see the past presentations and reports of his colleague to study its format and style.
In doing so, he improved the format and style which allowed his audience to better understand the intended messages embedded in documents.
To really help bring the importance of improving readability with document design home, here’s a YouTube link from Barnett Educational Services that discuss ways to improve readability for standard operating procedure and other procedural documents using format and style.
Take away: It is important to improve readability with a document’s design.
Anyone who writes any type of document, whether it’s a report, memo, email, or blog, wants its audience to understand the intended message. Aside, from the actual content, the way in which it’s presented determines the extent to which an audience will understand the author’s intended message.
Therefore, writers must ensure that the document is readable because of its organized and appealing design. In other words, the document has to look “good” in order to read well.
Cardon, P.W. (2016). Business Communication: Developing Leaders For a Networked World. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill Education.
Gutpa, A. (n.d.). 7 Proven Ways to Improve Website Readability and Boost Conversions. VWO. Retrieved from https://vwo.com/blog/website-copy-readability/
[Kathy Barnett]. (2015, May 18). Improving Readability of SOPs and Other Procedural Documents Trailer. [Video File]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QgGvx9kKvuQ
N.d. Improving Document Readability. Gonzaga University. Retrieved from http://www.gonzaga.edu/academics/colleges-and-schools/School-of-Business-Administration/undergraduate/SBAWR/IDR.asp
O’Hara C. (2014, November, 20). How To Improve Your Business Writing. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2014/11/how-to-improve-your-business-writing
Parker, R.C. (2012, October 8). 7 Readability Tips for Designing Engaging Content. Content Marketing Institute. Retrieved from http://contentmarketinginstitute.com/2012/10/readability-tips-designing-engaging-content/
(2011, November 8). 5 Firefox Add Ons To Increase Webpage Readability. Zoomzum. Retrieved from http://zoomzum.com/5-firefox-add-ons-to-increase-webpage-readability/