We are out of coffee: watch your enjambments!

Enjambment is when a sentence continues from one line of a poem to the next. This technique can be used to establish rhythm, enforce a rhyme, or create an interesting surprise for the reader. Take, for example, e.e. cummings' [i carry your heart with me(i carry it in] (it's worth clicking the link to read the poem and see the structure, which I can't fully reproduce because of copyrights): "i fear/ no fate(for you are my fate,my sweet)i want/ no world(for beautiful you are my world,my true)". 

The enjambment surprises us. "i fear/" sets up the expectation that we're going to find out what the speaker is afraid of, but the next line says "no fate...". The next line follows suite with the speakers wants. The enjambment leads us in one direction, then switches stances and moves in another direction for a fun twist - and the fun is in being a little mislead. 

However, misleading enjambments can cause problems. For an easy illustration, I'll share something I saw at 7 AM in an office cafe. I was exhausted from a night of little sleep, in desperate need of caffeine, and I came across this note next to the coffee pot: 


We are out of coffee
cups. Please use mugs. 
Thanks.

I'll admit that for a hot minute I was pretty startled. My brain immediately started listing the nearest places to get coffee, and figuring out whether or not I can squeeze in the travel time to and from before my next meeting. Maybe I was overreacting, but keep in mind that lots of research shows that we don't read nearly as much as we scan and skim

So you can see why I asked for edits when one of my consultants showed me a visualization like the one I recreated below. Notice the annotation in the upper right:


That first line of that annotation is bad news! "Across all of our lines, sales have decreased" is not something an executive wants to hear. However, the key point here isn't in the decreasing sales, it's in the increase in profits despite the decrease in sales, indicating that cost-cutting efforts have been successful. That's a great message, and most of the time it probably isn't a good idea to have an enjambment that sets the user up for a brief cardiac event. A better reading version might be:



This is probably safer. However, if our user is just quickly skimming and scanning, the first line may be enough of a complete thought that the reader just passes on. Profits have increased significantly? Good, I'll get back to my email. In a world of scanning and skimming, key points of your takeaway can quickly get left behind. If the user stops at the first sentence, the decrease in sales (which may need addressed) and the success of cost-cutting (which probably should continue) are both missed.

But, we could alter the enjambment to draw the reader into the next lines by suggesting something follows: 


Now our enjambments aren't misleading, but they also aren't suggesting the thought is complete either. This rewording hints that each following line is important, and encourages the user to stick with it to the end. 

Maybe this is all being too nit-picky. On the other hand, we aren't making fantastic dashboards by glossing over any details, and I've been in meetings where enjambment has caused someone to misinterpret a slide header that was only two lines long.

My visualizations tend to bring in a lot of text, probably because my background is heavier in the written arts than the visual arts. Consequently, I spend a lot of time thinking about how my headlines, titles, and annotations communicate. Sometimes I'll repeatedly reword annotations, or sometimes I'll just resize the annotation box or font so that I don't get a hanging "of" or "the". Other times, I'm very carefully considering my enjambment and, every once in a while, I might try dragging the user in by confirming an existing hypothesis, and then reject it on the next line for a nice e.e. cummings-style surprise. 

Regardless, our headlines and annotations rarely look like the paragraph text we find in a blog post or a book. Often, they look more like short poems or haikus. Consequently, we should pay attention to things that poets pay attention to. Even if they seem like minor details, those minor details are what add up to amazing dashboards.

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