Gain Audience Attention via Paragraph Shapes

In a small conference room setting you often have more time to go over content and therefore can use more text than you would if you were presenting a linear or narrative presentation in an auditorium or ballroom setting. One of the techniques I like to use, when there is more text to deal with, is to manually adjust paragraph widths and line breaks so they create defined shapes. What I mean by this is that your paragraphs are basically rectangles with a ragged right side. All the text that starts on the left side goes down in a nice straight line, while the text on the right may or may not hit the right side of the rectangle (unless you are using justified alignment, but I'll touch on that further down in this post). The top is basically a straight line from left to right and the bottom varies in length, but still goes left to right. What you need to do is to create the simplest shape possible within these parameters.

Why should you care? 

You should care because you should always be trying to give your audience a sense of ease when they first glance at your layouts. The more random your paragraph shapes are, the more your audience has to mentally wade through them. I am NOT talking about the meaning of the text. I am referring to the amount of visual information people are dealing with when looking at your slides. You can make it easy on them by adjusting how the right, ragged side of the text block looks. If you don't bother with the shape of your text blocks you lose an easy technique that helps your audience engage with your material.

How to do it

There are two basic ways to easily create better paragraph shapes:

A) Move the right side of your text blocks in and out just a bit so that the words form the least jagged edge. Take a look at the image below. All of these paragraphs have the same text. However, the width of each was adjusted slightly. Notice the different shapes that are formed when looking at each paragraph as a whole. Number 5 has the most jagged right edge. Number 6 has the least and therefore the most "pleasing" shape, by that I mean it forms a well defined shape and requires the least amount of mental effort to deal with. Number 3 is a close second, but it's last line feels abrupt, which brings me to number 4: When you have one word left over on the last line of a paragraph (called an "orphan", "widow" or "runt" depending on who you talk to and what phase the moon is in) you should almost always adjust the width or add a manual line break to give the last line a few more words. This is something that cannot be done on the web or any variable width screen as the text blocks need to adjust to all the screen variations people are using, but it can be done with presentations.

B) The second way to go about it is to add manual line breaks. Only use this method of you have already adjusted the text block's width and are still not satisfied with its shape OR you are dealing with multiple paragraphs in one column. This should only be done when all proofreading and editing is finalized, otherwise if someone goes to make an edit to a text block that has a manual like break, or several, the paragraph shape will look bad.

There are three line breaks you should try to avoid if possible: hyphenated words, proper names like South America or John Smith, and short two-word quotes like "presentation design". The longer these get the harder it is to keep them on one line, but you get the idea.

What if I have limited space for my text blocks?

This is almost always the case. Try nudging the font size, line height and/or letter spacing just a bit. Make sure you know the venue for the presentation though as many situations may require you to use large type sizes. Also, as a general rule, be consistent with whatever formatting you choose for the toughest paragraph. If you have to drop your text size by two points, do it for all of them. (There are times when it actually looks good to use different font sizes, like if you have three quotes lined up on one slide and one is very short. You can increase the font size of the short quote substantially to give it the focus and leave the other two small. This creates graphic tension and can help with the overall visual appeal of the slide.) You'll have to play with the formatting to get everything right, but once you get the hang of it, it will become easy and make a big improvement to your slides.

Justified Text Blocks

Justified text is text that is flush on both left and right sides, so you get almost perfect rectangles for your paragraph shapes. The only thing throwing them off is the last line that is always left aligned, which is fine because the short ending line signifies that the paragraph is done. You usually won't find this type of formatting in professionally designed presentations because most paragraphs are very short and justified text requires each line to be stretched out to touch both left and right sides. This can create odd looking word and letter spacing. It works better when you have more text so the spacing can be evened out over many, rather than fewer, words. Another reason some designers don't like to use justified text is that it can feel robotic and monotonous. Personally, I like it when it is broken up my some design element like an illustration.

Now Clean Up the Layout

If your paragraphs are stacked vertically you should probably pull them all into one text block and then they should be spaced according to the "space before" and "space after" numbers you have in your paragraph settings. If you are dealing with a row of separate text blocks you'll need to adjust the spacing between them. To even them out try using Distribute Horizontally first. If their spacing still looks off, move them manually. Don't be so concerned about the distance between the right side of one block and the left side of another. Instead, look at the volume of space between the two and make that look about the same. Then consider taking it a step further and organize your columns from longest to shortest going left to right. This will give your row it's own shape. The reason to go longest to shortest is so it feels, to the reader, like things are getting easier as they move through the text. However, if your columns need to be ordered chronologically, by importance or some other hierarchy don't bother ordering them from longest to shortest. Meaning and argument trumps design.

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I hope that helps you think about your text in terms of easing your audience's mind when they first see it. If your layout and typography feel like they are easy to deal with your audience is more likely to jump in and engage.

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