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22 Jan 2016

Learn this proven novelist’s colour secret for spectacular business documents

Colour your information for instant recall

Colour helps readers “to understand and recall information that is cued, although it must not be over-used.”

The quote is from a University of Reading in the UK document describing its document quality benchmarking process. Instead of offering a standard benchmark, it compares documents from one member organisation against those of another.

Their overview offers an interesting and illuminating read.

We Can Only Process Limited Information

Why do they say that about colour? Because people have a cognitive capacity – a limit to the amount of information we can process at any one time.

And they allude to what’s summed up in the phrase: “Less is more.” If people can only process a certain amount of information then we could overload them. That would defeat the purpose of our business document, which is to convey information.

You may be tempted to veer towards the other extreme, giving people one piece of information at a time. But business faces time constraints. Thriller authors know the concept all too well. Their heroes normally have to defuse a bomb set to detonate in a specific time. We may not have to defuse bombs in business but we certainly have deadlines. We need to do as much as possible in specified time frames. So our business documents must convey as much information in the shortest time possible.

Highlight Specific Detail

Novel authors offer a great analogy. They create characters and the better authors won’t describe characters in excruciating detail. Instead they will highlight certain aspects of a character, one or two physical traits, and make them different in some way so they stand out from the ordinary. Later they will subtly recall those details to immediately place characters in our minds. It’s a trick of memory that’s been proven over the many centuries of story telling. You can use colour to achieve the same effect in your business documents. The trick is not to overdo it, use it sparingly, and focus on highlighting the really important details.

Novels are long and contain many characters. We could easily forget characters when they’re described blandly and in boring detail because there’s simply too much to remember. But limit the information and highlight specific aspects and we more easily remember it. We can apply a similar process to business documents. And by doing so we don’t overload our audience’s cognitive abilities. We give them chunks of information they can more easily digest – and more easily remember.

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