Format for High Skim Value

One thing to remember about business messages is that there’s a good chance no one wants to read what you write. Your receivers will want to get the main points and action items as quickly as possible while reading as few words as possible. You can improve the clarity by striving to create a message with what business communication experts Mary Munter and Lynn Hamilton call High Skim Value.[1] High Skim Value refers to the ability of your receiver to glean the central message and key pieces of information just by skimming.

The good news is that you do not need to be a graphic designer to create professional documents with High Skim Value. All you need is to master a few basic formatting options available in most email and word processing programs. Clear headings and discrete paragraphs divide information into easily understood chunks. Bulleted or numbered lists help to identify key details. Bold and italic fonts help to highlight important dates or action items. The basic formatting functions that follow can help any business person look like a pro.

Use White Space to Increase Readability

White space refers to any unused part of the page. It includes margins around the edge, spaces between lines, and other unused space. The purpose of white space is that it eases the visual burden on the receiver. In fact, a document with judicious use of white space can be less daunting to read than the exact content communicated without white space. Here are some general rules for using white space.


Generally, margins should be set to at least 1” around the entire page. If you know a report may be printed and bound in hardcopy format, you should leave a wider margin on the edge where it will be bound. In more complex documents, you can increase the margin of particular sections (that is, add additional white space) to show they are subordinated to higher-level points.

Line Spacing

In business documents, you often will see paragraphs with extra blank (white) space in between. Formatting paragraphs in this way make documents much easier to read and skim than if they were spaced the same way—either single-spaced or double-spaced throughout. That is because the white space helps to visually “separate” paragraphs from one another.

You may want to check your computer settings. Some software programs now default to a multiple line spacing and automatically add extra space in between lines. This default is problematic because too much line spacing also can make your documents harder to read. We recommend resetting your defaults to single space with no automatic extra spacing before and/or after paragraphs.

Text Justification

Most of the time in business you will see documents that are left aligned, which leaves a jagged edge of text on the right. Other times you may see text that is justified (or “fully justified”), where both the right and left sides are perfectly straight lines. While justification gives documents a clean appearance, it can make them much harder to read. The jagged edge on the right helps your receiver’s eyes move from the end of the right edge to the start of the left edge. Another concern with justification is that it can put gaps in words or between words that make them harder to read. For these reasons, left aligned text is preferable most of the time.

Use Headings to Indicate Flow

Headings can be helpful for increasing skim value. These short phrases (or sometimes complete sentences) can signal new major points. If headings are done correctly, your receiver should be able to read only the headings within your message and clearly understand your overall basic message. Try reading the headings in the chapters in this book. Are you able to get the big picture at a glance? Here are some tips for writing good headings.

Placement and Number

Strategically mark major new ideas with headings and subheadings. Think about headings as marking “chapters” in your document. But be careful of heading overload. Having too many headings can be just as bad for skim value as having too few headings. Yes, there may be times when a section may have only one paragraph in it. But if you write a message and every paragraph has its own heading, then you’re in heading overload territory. As a general rule, try to stick to fewer than three headings per full page of text.


The wording of headings is important. Your heading should be worded clearly enough that your receiver will understand the essence of that section. Sometimes with only a few extra words, you can create a much more skimmable document. For example, instead of using the heading “First Quarter Sales Figures,” use the more specific “First Quarter Sales Rose by 18%”


When it comes to formatting headings, simplicity is always good. One of the easiest ways to format headings is to write the heading on its own line and put it in bold text. This approach works well for long emails or letters that have multiple sections. Another approach is to set off the heading in a different color and font face. This more visual approach is best for more formal reports.

However you decide to format headings, consistency will be key. For instance, if you have two levels of headings (i.e., a top level heading and a subheading), all of the top level headings should be formatted alike and all the subheadings should be formatted alike. Additionally, you should try to visually signal which level is higher. For instance, your higher level heading might have title case (where each main word is capitalized) and your lower level heading might have sentence case (where only the first word of the heading is capitalized).

Select Fonts to Draw Attention

Font emphasis is another way to increase skim value. Any type of formatting you add will draw your receiver’s attention. This can include elements like font face, size, and color, as well as emphasis like underlining, bold, and italic effects.

Here are some guidelines for effective use of fonts.

Font Faces

Even in extended business reports, use no more than two font faces per document—one for the main text and one for headings. A common font combination is to use a serif font (like Times New Roman) for the body of the text and a sans serif font (like Arial) for headings.


Like font faces, color should be simple as well. For most reports, one color for text (black or dark grey) and one color for headings is usually plenty of color. Dark colors tend to work better than light colors, especially when you’re using colors for headings. But you might want to pay attention to your color palette and choose colors that are meaningful to your receiver and appropriate to the subject, such as using green for a report on sustainability or your company colors for a report on your quarterly performance.


There are a number of font styles that can be applied to draw attention.

Font Styles

There are a number of font styles that can be applied to draw attention.

Bold font styling is easy to spot on a page or screen and likely will immediately draw your receiver’s attention. In addition to highlighting headings, it can be used to emphasize anything you don’t want your receiver to miss. Key information like deadlines, tasks, or changes might be good candidates for bold font styling.

Years ago when documents were prepared on typewriters, underlining was a common way of adding emphasis. And certainly, some people still use underlining as their go-to technique. However, with the advent of the Internet and hyperlinks, underlining now signals a hyperlink. So if you are sending a message—especially one that might be read on a computer screen—choose a different form of text emphasis so your receivers don’t think you have a broken hyperlink in your message.

Italic font styling is not very easy to spot. So it usually is used to draw attention to a particular word or phrase to signal its relative importance. For instance you might thank someone very much (emphasizing “very”) or

Keep it Simple

If there are too many elements vying for attention, your receiver may get visually overwhelmed and will no longer know where to look. Instead of speeding up the time it takes to skim your message, the ensuing chaos can dramatically slow down and perhaps halt all progress.

Therefore, if you remember one thing about creating High Skim Value, it should be this: Less is more. While you should not be afraid to use various formatting elements to draw attention, you do need to be careful not to use too much emphasis.

For instance, you only need a few styles applied to make a piece of text pop out. For instance, a heading in a different font face and a bright color will draw in your receiver’s full attention. You do not also need to make it bigger, bold, underlined, italicized, and written in all CAPS.

  1. Mary Munter and Lynn Hamilton, Guide to Managerial Communication: Effective Business Writing and Speaking, 10th ed. (Boston, MA: Pearson, 2014).


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Business Communication: Five Core Competencies Copyright © 2023 by Kristen Lucas, Jacob D. Rawlins, and Jenna Haugen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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