Impact Technical Publications Avoid these Mistakes
Think like a storyteller!

A white paper tells a story about a product, service, or technology.

One of the best ways to make a story exciting is to start in the middle of the action and fill in historical details as the plot unfolds.

The most exciting part of a product, service, or technology is usually the solution that it offers to the audience's problems or the business value that it enables a company to achieve.

Here are three mistakes that you should watch out for when you organize your white paper and select your starting point. Each mistake can cost you readers, especially when you have a weak overview or - worse yet - no overview at all.

The History Lesson

This far too common starting point discusses historical information at length. For example:

Products with proprietary architectures were first released in the early 1970s. Over the next 15 years, the industry slowly moved to open architectures. In 1982, the XYZ Company introduced the first product that could import information from and export information to other proprietary products. Finally, in 1987 the LMN Company released the first product with a true open architecture....

Authors' goals seldom involve giving readers a history of a technology. Goals usually involve the current or future state of a technology such as showing how a technology solves problems, demonstrating that it is viable, or making its business value clear.

Start the white paper with ideas that support your goals. If historical information will contribute to the understanding of a topic within the white paper, include the information in the topic. The first thing your audience wants to know is not the historical problems that the company or the industry has overcome but rather "Why do I want to read this white paper?"

Another example: you are writing a white paper to justify teaching algebra in secondary schools. Don't start with the history of algebra; start with reasons why algebra is an important subject for secondary school students to learn.

The Joy of Technology Syndrome

This starting point discusses the technology at length without explaining to readers why the technology is important. This is an actual example of a white paper's opening paragraph, which we have made generic to protect the guilty:

The application architecture is a client - server structure. End-user services are built from components of the foundation library. In the process of designing a service, the bandwidth of server and client nodes must be carefully considered. The foundation library provides solutions for both "thin" and "fat" clients following the recommended functional decomposition.

Sometimes the technology discussion is so basic that the audience already knows the material. Sometimes the discussion is so advanced that the audience is overwhelmed without any encouragement to assimilate the material. Sometimes the discussion is at the right level, but the audience does not know why it should be interested.

The Joy of Technology Syndrome results in a lost opportunity to capture readers' attention. Tell them something that will encourage them to learn about the technology.

Explaining technologies is an important part of many white papers, but remember that you are telling a story. Make sure the audience understands why the explanation is important. The following example explains why readers should be interested in the basics of office automation.

Office automation systems have proven their value in medium and large organizations. They process documents efficiently, eliminate repetitive procedures and redundant data, and reduce the need for hard-copy documents. Understanding how a basic office automation system works is necessary to understand how office automation systems provide these benefits.

The Laundry List of Problems

This starting point discusses problems that the technology solves. Unlike the History Lesson and the Joy of Technology Syndrome, which are always bad starting points, the laundry list of problems may be a good starting point. But make sure that airing a list of problems at the start is the best way to achieve your goals. In many instances, readers already know they have problems. They are interested in solutions to their problems. If that is the case, focus on solutions and discuss the problems as you discuss the solutions.

The Laundry List of Problems works best when readers:

  • Don't understand that they have problems. You must convince them that they have problems before you can convince them that you have a solution.
  • Understand that they have problems but don't think that the problems are serious. You must convince them that the problems are serious before you can convince them that your solution is worth investigating.

Here's an example of the Laundry List of Problems:

Today there is no accepted standard for storing raw camera files; not only do camera manufacturers create their own formats, but these formats often vary among cameras created by a single manufacturer.

This laundry list of problems is from Introducing the Digital Negative Specification: Information for Manufacturers, a white paper by Adobe Systems for an audience of camera manufacturers. We think this is a poor way to open a white paper. Camera manufacturers already know about these problems. But we are not criticizing Adobe's white paper! The paragraph above does not start the white paper. It appears on the second page.

Here's the opening paragraph:

The Digital Negative (DNG) specification describes a generalized raw format for digital cameras that can broadly support such files across a variety of workflows and products. Adobe is introducing this new file specification as a solution to the increasing proliferation of camera-specific raw formats, which complicate shared workflows and create concerns about archiving over a long period of time.

This starting point makes sense. Adobe is telling camera manufacturers that they want to read the white paper because it presents a solution to an industry-wide problem. The white paper continues with a discussion of the problems associated with raw files and an analysis of the proposed solution: the Digital Negative specification.

The White Paper Links page includes a link to Adobe's white paper.

If you still doubt that starting a white paper with a laundry list of problems is usually a mistake, click here!

Go to the next tip: Explain concepts.


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