How to Design a White Paper for Your Time-Challenged Readers

How to Design a White Paper for Your Time-Challenged Readers
Michele Linn - Mon Jan 25, 2010 @ 10:58PM
Comments: 62

Crafting White Paper 2.0Great content is more than compelling words on a page. There are a lot of things that go creating content that your audience wants to read and forward, but one of the most critical factors is design.

While I think most marketers agree that design is important, especially for things like websites and eBooks, I have often found that this is overlooked with white papers. People often consider these documents to be more academic so they think that design isn't important (clients tell me we don't need to engage with a designer, and I see countless examples of poorly designed papers).

I'm a firm believer that white paper design is critical, so when Jonathan Kantor sent me his new book, Crafting White Paper 2.0, I was looking forward to getting some more ideas on how design can be improved. As the subtitle of the book states, the book is about "designing information for today's time and attention-challenged business reader."

I absolutely agree with the premise of Jonathan's book: readers are inundated with information, and white papers need to be designed so they can be easily digested.

Kantor identifies six key elements to include in your white paper to make them easier to consume:

  • Executive summaries
  • Concluding summaries
  • Callouts
  • Graphics
  • Bullet list
  • Shaded text boxes

I think all of these elements are great additions to any white paper, and if you are looking for ideas on how to incorporate any of these items, Jonathan has a chapter devoted to each. It's a handy reference.

One key theme running throughout White Paper 2.0 was the idea to keep it simple. While you start to include these items in your white paper, it can be easy to get carried away and highlight too much information. If you have too many design elements competing for attention, the reader won't know where to look.

Here are just a few of the suggestions Jonathan provides to keep the design in check:

  • Think about the 3:1 ratio for graphics in white papers: one graphic for every three pages.
  • Instead of having esoteric business graphics that readers can't understand without explanatory information, use things like charts, simple workflows and screenshots (Jonathan provides ideas on how to develop and use each of these).
  • Shaded boxes are fantastic at drawing a reader's attention, but use them sparingly; only use them once or twice within a white paper.

To help put things in perspective, you need to keep in mind how your reader will be reading your white paper. Early in the book, Jonathan talks about how layered approach with today's business reader. Instead of readers reading a document from start to finish, he suggests they approach it in three stages:

  • Skimming
  • Preliminary reading
  • Comprehensive reading and recommendations

While I have thought about how readers skim and the importance of having these key elements tell a story, I hadn't thought about this middle stage that Jonathan terms preliminary reading. During this stage, when readers delve into a paper in more detail, they often look at the text around these graphic elements first before reading the whole paper. This is something I will think about for future projects.

If you haven't considered design to be an important component of your white paper, Jonathan provides some compelling ideas of why and how to do this in his book. And, even if you are convinced that you need to be cognizant of your white paper design, this book provides some useful tips on how what to consider. It's a resource I will certainly return to.

And, as a sidenote, if you are looking for some white paper ideas (who doesn't like a bit of inspiration?), Jonathan provides a weekly round-up of white papers in his blog, The White Paper Pundit. Earlier this year, he posted a "best of" list that is a nice resource.

I'd love your thoughts: what other things do you think are important to help a reader understand the key points in a white paper?

Related posts:

About the author: Michele Linn is a B2B content strategist who helps companies create content and think through how their B2B prospects will consume it (from registration to promotion). You can follow her on Twitter or read more of her posts on Savvy B2B.

Comments: 62

Comments

1. Kim Cornwall Malseed  |  my website   |   Tue Jan 26, 2010 @ 02:25AM

Great post Michele, I've been thinking a lot lately about content design, especially white papers as they're a staple of the tech industry. I'll definitely check out Jonathan's book, thanks for the review and links to inspirational examples. Always helpful to see how others are applying the principles. Two common mistakes I see a lot in white papers are not having a table of contents (or links in sidebar of PDF that link to different sections) and not using sub-headings within the text. ToC lets readers quickly skip to sections most important to them, and sub-headings act as 'mini-titles' that readers can skim and pick up the key points.

2. Michele Linn  |  my website   |   Wed Jan 27, 2010 @ 07:16AM

Kim,

Thanks for your comment. I am someone who doesn't include a table in contents in a white paper, so I am really interested in your thoughts on this. The papers I work on are about 6 - 10 pages in length, so I have never thought there was a need (and quite honestly, it never occurred to me to do this). I am, however, a big fan of subheads, so I just assumed that someone would skim the paper to get a sense of the contents.

What is your experience? Do you see the Table of Contents as a way for people to navigate the PDF, is it to provide an overview, or perhaps a combination? I'd love to hear what works for you - and find ways to make my clients' white papers better.

3. Kim Cornwall Malseed  |  my website   |   Wed Jan 27, 2010 @ 08:14AM

Thanks for your question, happy to elaborate. I view ToC as a combination, both for navigation and overview. But if I do a ToC page within the white paper, the text for each section is hyperlinked to that place in the document. That way reader can not just see overview, but click to get to that section.

Usually for shorter white papers, instead of a ToC within the document, I'll use the Adobe PDF bookmarks feature to have a left sidebar navigation and overview. That way if readers just want to skim document uninterrupted they can, or skim sidebar and click to navigate as they wish.

4. Michele Linn  |  my website   |   Wed Jan 27, 2010 @ 12:55PM

Kim: I like the idea of the bookmarks feature for the shorter white papers. Thanks for elaborating!

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