Why White Paper?

Recently I was asked by a colleague to oversee the writing and designing of a white paper. As part of this process, I laid out some key points to help get them started and I thought it might be worth sharing here also. Here goes…

 

Executive Summary

I would strongly advise beginning with an executive summary, which digests the entire paper and its findings into a single paragraph of text. The majority of white paper audiences tend to be quite time-poor, and you want all readers (particularly senior stakeholders or decision-makers) to get a good grasp of your paper’s key message(s) very quickly (they will read on if they are interested or require more supporting detail). Check out this link to a potentially useful article.

 

Background

Try to make your first section after the executive summary a background or introduction. What is the context/challenge for the case study? Why was it done? For example, “in 2016, Company X found its revenues flat-lining due to adoption of e-commerce platforms by competitors. To address this, Company Y decided it needed to…”

 

Visuals

Cover page

Decent design never hurt a serious document. Try to feature an impactful photo or design that encapsulates your paper in a memorable (but impartial) way.

Theme it up

Try using bold colour themes to separate your key sections to help clearly differentiate.

Data, data, data

Try to include as many graphs, charts, photographs as possible. This will keep it visually interesting, give a sense that the paper is rich in data, and break long passages of text up into digestible chunks. The last thing you want is for someone to download/pick up your shiny new white paper and say “eh, no way” when they see copious amounts of text.

Charts and Graphs
Charts and graphs galore

Key quotes

Partially an editorial concern (this section comes next), it’s a good idea to select a key point or quote from each chapter/section, so that it can be enlarged for emphasis as part of your design and will stand out for those taking a cursory flick-through (also known as a ‘pull quote’).

Pull Quote
Good example of a pull quote from Rolling Stone Magazine

 

Editorial

This is the key section for getting it right. Cosmetic (design) flair can make you look good and therefore help get the reader’s attention, but it’s what’s under the hood of your white paper that counts.

No filler, please

Like in my post about basic SEO best practice for blogs, you should keep your sentences short and to the point (i.e. easy to read). Each and every word and sentence should have a clear point/purpose. Brevity is king.

Remember, you are impartial!

Unlike with personal blogs, you need to keep your content entirely impartial. You shouldn’t offer personal opinions, just stick to the facts. Always write in the third person; never in the first. A recommendation as a closing comment is appropriate, but again, only if it is based on facts/data and offered as an impartial summary.

A popular way of ensuring impartiality for a white paper is to hire an outsider to write it. This rules out any preconceived notions or biases held by you or your team, no matter subconscious.

Most importantly, your job is to inform and demonstrate through leadership; normally to business and/or technical people. The best way to motivate this audience is to inform – not to excite, delight, scare, etc. Feel free to add credibility to your key points by citing reputable third parties, always noting your source of information.

Sweet spot for length

Keep it short but not too short. A two-page document is not a white paper. Equally, your audience will not want to read through swathes of dense information. 6-10 pages is a decent target.

Remember the 3-30-3 Rule

Keep it short – 3-30-3 rule (you have 3 seconds to grab attention, 30 seconds to create engagement, and 3 minutes to inform). As referenced in this article from HubSpot.

Don’t blind with science

If the white paper discusses a new technology or product (you tend to see a lot of white papers in tech content circles particularly), try to call out what exactly it is when you introduce it. You should avoid having readers asking “this sounds great, but what the hell is it?”

Typewriter
Visuals will get attention, but words are your power

 

Structure, structure, structure

Finally, don’t forget to organise your information! Try to break down your white paper into clearly distinct sections (but not too many). Even your table of contents should tell a story at a glance. For example, a white paper covering a company’s adoption of a new technology might run as follows:

  • Executive Summary
  • Background
  • The Technology
  • Challenges to Rollout & Adoption
  • Outcomes
  • Key Takeaways

And there it is, a quick crash course in making your white paper shine. Good luck!