Make your text more effective in one easy step

You’ve just finished your first session at the gym. Your friend Sam came along for moral support. After one hour of torture, the instructor hands you both a printout with some exercises to work on. You read it through: “hold your hands behind your head, tuck your knees in…”

“So how long would it take you to do this exercise?” the instructor asks.

It looks pretty straightforward. “About eight minutes,” you say. “Seems alright.”

When the instructor’s out of earshot, Sam says, “Maybe you’re fitter than I am, but it’d take me at least 15 minutes to do that.”

“That’s weird,” you say, and look at Sam’s instructions. The content is exactly the same: “hold your hands behind your head…”

There’s only one thing that’s different:  the font. Your instructions are written in a clean font, like this text.

sam's instructions are written like this (in cursive font)

The evidence

This story is based on a scientific study. A team of researchers found that people who read exercise instructions in hard-to-read fonts estimated that the exercises would take longer. These fonts also made people feel less inclined to exercise.

What this means for your business

It’s common knowledge that ornate fonts and small text are harder to read. What I found fascinating about this study is the implication for business branding.

Font formatting doesn’t just affect text’s readability. It influences how persuasive your text is, and how likely people are to follow instructions, or respond to calls to action. We invest so much in building websites and printing brochures… why undermine your brand with information that isn’t persuasive because of how it’s presented?

The study I mentioned looked at font choice. I’d be very interested in whether the insights from this research apply to other aspects of formatting that web usability tells us are best avoided:

  • Small font sizes for paragraph text
  • Over-use of caps, bolding and italics
  • Low-contrast text (such as medium-gray text on a light gray background).

The one-step process to make your text more effective

Make sure your text is readable. Doing this will instantly improve your chances of getting through to the people who matter.

Read on…

Web Style GuidePatrick J Lynch and Sarah Horton. A free web resource that runs through font-choice (and many other web style issues) in detail.

If it’s hard to read, it’s hard to do: Processing fluency affects effort prediction and motivation, Hyunjin Song and Norbert Schwarz. (2008). Psychological Science 19: 986– 8.

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