Be the director of first impressions for your document

Anne-Marie Chisnall | March 23, 2017

What’s the first impression your document is likely to make? Because of the way our brains work, readers will form an impression of your document in the first few seconds. Will they judge it favourably and want to read on — or will their eyes glaze over?

Ever opened a report and got that sinking feeling? Lots of pages, lots of words, dense paragraphs, and unclear headings? We’ve all seen reports like this and wondered whether the writers ever thought about their readers at all.

First impressions count…

When you’re writing a document, it pays to remember that first impressions count. And they last. And they’re formed in an instant.

Woman holding open sign.

Director of first impressions. Image by / CC0 1.0

You can direct the impression your document makes by applying some simple plain language techniques. This gives you the power to help your reader connect with your content right from the first view. Here are four tips to help make sure your document impresses your reader.

1. Picture your reader

Think about who you’re writing for. What sorts of things will have an effect on how your reader approaches your document? Are they busy or stressed? Are they unfamiliar with any technical content or the particular project you’ve been working on? Do they have questions? Put yourself in their shoes for a moment and imagine making the document work well for them and getting the result you want.

2. Structure your content with your reader in mind

Make sure you’ve worked out the purpose of your document and place it right at the start. That way you show that you know what you want the document to achieve and how you want the reader to use it.

Add headings and subheadings to signpost key content. Your headings are your roadmap through your content. Use headings to tell the main points of your story so readers can skim and easily find where they want to dig deeper.

3. Use a conversational tone to engage with your reader

Imagine you’re talking to a human being — that’s right, a real person. So often we forget that real people have to read what we’ve written and be able to act on it. As writers, we can make their decisions easier to make. We can help them save time or choose the right option. We can give them clear instructions they can follow first time.

Use a conversational tone and put people into your writing — use ‘you’ and ‘we’ and avoid the passive voice wherever you can.

4. Design to impress your reader with CARP

Image: Koi carp in pond at Chinese Garden, Singapore.

Koi carp in pond at Chinese Garden, Singapore. Image by AM Chisnall

The way you present your document has a big impact on the way its messages are received. Use the principles of CARP to help your document design have high impact without losing readability.

C = Contrast: include some variation in visual elements (for example, use contrast in size and weight for headings)
A = Alignment: align consistently for an effect that is pleasing to the eye (for example, keep text aligned to the left of the page at the same indent)
R = Repetition: repeat elements to provide clues for the reader (for example, use heading levels consistently)
P = Proximity: keep things together that need to be together (for example, keep headings close to the text they introduce, with more space above the heading than below)

… great first impressions count even more

Undoing a bad first impression is difficult. So why not get it right first time and ensure your reader has a great reading experience.

Join our Psychology of Writing to learn how you can harness the principles of brain science to communicate more effectively.

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