We let the facts do the talking.

Selecting the right font is the type of PR skill you need

So which font is your favourite for a press release? Do you use one particular typeface over another? If so, why? Is it because your agency has a set house style that you are obliged to employ, or does your own personal preference dictate?

I pose these questions because it is not widely appreciated that fonts have a huge amount of power. The shape and style of the characters that form a document can subconsciously affect what a reader thinks of its content. And while it’s not the case that selecting a particular typeface will turn a poor release into a good one, the right choice of font for an already strong piece of work can subtly enhance its influence further.

In July 2012, documentary filmmaker Errol Morris conducted an experiment that involved approximately 45,000 unsuspecting nytimes.com readers reading an article that appeared in one of six typefaces; Baskerville, Comic Sans, Computer Modern, Georgia, Helvetica and Trebuchet. The experiment cleverly used a ruse to generate a reader response, posing the cover question: “Are You an Optimist or a Pessimist?” A computer program randomly assigned one of the six fonts to the readers, with the typefaces used in a passage about the likelihood of the earth being destroyed by an asteroid. The experiment then required the readers to take part in a survey on whether they thought the statement was true.

The results were very interesting indeed, revealing that subjects were more likely to agree with the statement when it appeared in Baskerville. For every 1,000 respondents to the survey, almost five more people agreed with the statement when it was written in this particular font than they did when it was written in Helvetica. Although the figure appears small, David Dunning, the psychology professor who helped devise the test, said that it was statistically significant:

“It’s small, but it’s about a 1% to 2% difference — 1.5% to be exact, which may seem small but to me is rather large…. Many online marketers would kill for a 2% advantage either in more clicks or more clicks leading to sales.”

Morris and Dunning’s experiment revealed that the second place most trustworthy font out of the six was Computer Modern, which was followed by Georgia, then Trebuchet and then Helvetica. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Microsoft’s child-oriented Comic Sans font, based on the lettering found in comic books, came out as the least trustworthy of the six by quite a margin.

Admittedly, Morris and Dunning’s experiment involved readers of an on-line news portal and did not assess the effect of different fonts on industry professionals, such as editors, who deal with typefaces as a part of their daily working lives. It might just be the case that the Baskerville font, which was designed in 1757 by John Baskerville, has too much of the ‘Olde Worlde’ about it to be considered by editors as a suitable format for a press release. Far from leading them to think positively about the content, it may more likely annoy them that a fellow professional has submitted a press release in a font considered unorthodox at least.

But there is a more modern typeface that you might just consider using as the default one for your marketing material. In another survey, the personality traits of nine common fonts found on Windows and Macintosh systems were studied, with five shortlisted on the basis of their perceived professionalism, reliability, formality, assertiveness and friendliness. A poll was then carried out to find the most trustworthy typeface to convey trust in a financial context. Arial was chosen as the most appropriate, followed by Lucida Grande and Georgia.