Have you ever read an operating manual and been simultaneously bored and confused? Or been handed an report so dense, you considered concussing yourself with a blunt object to get out of reading it?
Successful communications — whether in the form of a report, an email, a manual, or an information piece — convey critical information in a way that’s as painless as possible, making it not only readable, but relatable and retainable, too. And while Word offers a lot of nudges in the right direction, it can’t do everything for you.
As someone who’s been called upon to “make things look pretty” on several occasions, I’ve developed quite a few tips and tricks for creating professional documents that are also people pleasing. Here are some of my biggest hints.
Playing with Words
A wall of text is about the most tortuous thing to encounter, especially if it’s 30 minutes before lunch and your blood sugar is low. Break that content into bite-sized pieces that will help your readers easily digest what you’re trying to get across so they can go eat already!
Create short paragraphs that are no more than three sentences long. Use bullet points when possible. And if appropriate, utilize pull quotes to give people additional entry points into the text. More ideas here from Copy Blogger.
Make Room for White Space
White space is just that — it’s empty, white space. It gives our eyes a break and helps us more readily absorb the content on the page. Your consumers need it to be able to read things swiftly and easily. If you’ve got two and a half pages of content, resist the temptation to make your margins super narrow in an effort to cram everything onto two pages. Unless you’re under some sort space restriction, let that extra half page happen, and give your readers a break.
Here’s a great introduction to the theory of white space, for those whose white papers end up coming out a little too gray.
Leverage Your Logo
If you’re creating a white paper or some other official or informational document, make sure you include your logo. Informational documents are often introductory, which means your reader may not be too familiar with your brand. Help them get acquainted with your visual identity by using your logo throughout the piece.
Images are Important
Wherever possible, demonstrate your point with an image or illustration. These give the reader a break, and have the capability to convey emotions far easier than words. But be sure to choose good images or create quality illustrations, and make sure their tone matches the overall tone of your piece. Clip art and bad stock photos are not what your audience wants to see.
Create Variation with Color
I’m not advocating using every crayon in the box, but you can (and should) feel comfortable utilizing up to three complementary colors — ideally your brand colors — in your document. They offer visual stimulation and can also contribute to an informational or visual hierarchy. Just make sure you stick to the same rules for colors throughout.
For instance your logo in the footer is maroon, your headings are black, and your subheadings are gray. And by all means, if your brand isn’t as staid as all that, go a little brighter…just make sure it’s still readable without generating a headache.
Alignment is one of the major principles of graphic design. It doesn’t always come into play with Word documents, but it can, and it’s especially evident in Power Point presentations, brochures, and just about any piece that has images. Alignment sends the signal to our brain that everything in front of us is in order, enabling us to concentrate on the content itself. It can also be used strategically to create groupings.
You can make sure the various elements in your piece are aligned using layout tools available, and failing that, rulers, guides, or grids offered by the program you’re using. Here’s a great guide on clean visual design with more detail.
Be sure to read my post on how to make PowerPoint less painful.
Putting It All Together
Here’s an example document that outlines an organization’s governance process. While the content is incredibly dry, and could be condensed into half as many pages, the formatting helps a busy reader get through it with relative ease.
Have more thoughts on how to create professional looking documents? Feel free to share!