16 possible ways to structure a white paper
You’ve probably heard my concept of the three “flavors” of white papers.
But within these three, there are many different ways to organize a white paper.
Here are 16 possibilities, which I’ve extracted and expanded with thanks from one of my favorite books, Presenting to Win by Jerry Weissman.
Weissman is a former New York City TV producer who went to Silicon Valley to help CEOs improve their pitch presentations.
With his help, they developed their stories, practised their pitches, and raised millions in venture capital.
Among Weissman’s nuggets of wisdom:
- Don’t show oodles of text on the screen.
If you want to write a document, use Word. Then give it to audience members after your talk.
- Less is more. When in doubt, leave it out. Stop cluttering up your slides.
- You get 4 bullets per slide and 4 words per bullet. That’s it, that’s all.
I highly recommend his book for anyone who gives presentations. And much of his advice applies to writing white papers as well.
On to the list of structures
Now here’s that list of 16 possible structures for a presentation. All these apply to white papers too.
Note: I’m not saying there are 16 flavors for white papers instead of 3. These 16 are rhetorical strategies for organizing information. I still believe there are only 3 full-fledged “flavors” that represent 4 out of 5 white papers we see today.
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With each option, I’ve included a few notes, and in some cases samples of white papers I’ve worked on that fit that structure.
Just click on the cover thumbnail to download any sample.
1. Modular: Describe a sequence of similar parts, units, or components that can be covered in interchangeable order.
In other words, break a complex system or machine into groups of components that serve a common purpose such as input/output, processing, or security.
I’m not sure I ever wrote a white paper like this, but it sounds feasible.
2. Chronological: Organize the ideas along a timeline, reflecting events in the order in which they occurred or might occur.
In other words, describe a series of events or a process from start to finish.
This makes intuitive sense to any reader—even to someone as dense as the King of Hearts in Alice’s Wonderland.
“Begin at the beginning,” the King said very gravely, “and go on till you come to the end: then stop.”
3. Physical: Describe different concepts according to their physical or geographical location.
In other words, organize a white paper by moving from one actual point in space to another.
Here’s an example: Describe a user on a smartphone connected through a VPN sending input to an app running on a server at the company HQ that updates a customer record in a database which is then mirrored to a backup database at a second data centre.
Each item in a different location plays their part in the whole network.
I’ve certainly used this approach to create networking diagrams for white papers. And once you have a diagram, it’s natural to describe the flow according to what you show in the picture.
4. Spatial: Organize concepts according to a physical metaphor or analogy.
In other words, use a metaphor to describe a B2B system or offering, such as a three-legged stool or an ion-drive engine.
I’ve actually used metaphors like those to help organize different white papers.
See how this is different from #3? The structure above uses the physical or real-world location of the items, while this structure uses a conceptual or metaphorical arrangement of the items.
5. Problem/solution: Organize the white paper around a nagging industry problem that no one has ever properly solved, and the new, improved solution offered by your company.
Well, we’ve certainly talked about this before!
It’s one of my three classic flavors, and I use this approach all the time. Here are some problem/ solution white papers I’ve done recently.
This paper covers the problem of colleges helping students to succeed, by finding a better way to listen to their concerns.
It surveys 4 typical ways to do this, and proposes a better way: my client’s software.
And this one aimed at control engineers describes the drawbacks of the mechanical circuit breakers they’re likely using and suggests the newer electronic circuit breakers as a much safer and more effective component.
For more on the classic problem/solution, see this article on planning a white paper of this flavor.
6. Issues/Actions: Describe one or more business issues and the actions your company or client proposes to address them.
This approach can focus more on the implementation, execution or tactical level, rather than the strategic level of many problem/solution papers.
Here’s one white paper I wrote with this approach, called “How to Cut Wireless Costs: 5 Strategies and 14 Tactics for CFOs.”
The issue is something any CFO can relate to: the rising costs of wireless for employees.
7. Opportunity/Leverage: Describe a business opportunity and the leverage your company will implement to take advantage of it.
This sounds something like the “business drivers” section of a white paper that Mike Stelzner used to recommend.
Some of the white papers I’ve been writing for companies planning Initial Coin Offerings (ICOs) of new cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin are organized like this.
I can’t show you any of those papers yet, because many haven’t been widely published.
But this is an interesting approach if you’re trying to raise money from investors.
8. Form/Function: Organize the material around a single business concept, method, or technology with multiple applications or functions emanating from that central core.
Another way to think of this is as a hub with spokes.
I’ve organized entire sets of white papers this way: placing one visionary white paper at the hub with multiple offshoots to describe different products or functions.
Every spoke explicitly references the central vision.
That’s a natural way to group all the coverage of issues like ease-of-use or security, and still link them back to the company’s grand vision.
9. Features/Benefits: Organize the paper around a series of features and the concrete benefits each feature provides. Recognize this one?
Yes, it’s a classic backgrounder that drills down in to a B2B offering.
I call this vanilla:
so traditional that you always know what you’re going to get.
This kind of paper is most useful at two points:
- To support the launch of a product or service
- To support an evaluation of competing offerings from different vendors
One of the first white papers I ever worked on was organized this way: as a deep dive into the framegrabber circuit board on an image acquisition system.
See how very specific a backgrounder can be!
Another paper reviewed five different benefits of the single sign-on software from a client.
This paper was even give the title of an “Evaluator’s Guide.”
At one time, all white papers were like this, strictly about products.
For more on writing a backgrounder, see this article.
10. Case study: A narrative that recounts how your company solved a particular problem or met the needs of a particular client.
In the telling, you cover all the aspects of your business and its environment.
Oh-oh. This is a great definition of a case study. But I’ve never seen this work for an entire white paper.
I believe you can use a case study inside a white paper, but you can’t use a white paper inside a case study.
For some examples, see this article.
Perhaps I should expand my horizons? Maybe an ideal case study could be expanded into a full-length white paper? Have you ever written one like that? If so, please tell me about it in our comments section below. I’d appreciate it if you could point us to a sample.
11. Argument/Fallacy: Raises arguments against your own case, and then rebuts them by pointing out the false beliefs that underlie them.
This approach is most often done as a numbered list.
It’s an effective way to change a conversation by challenging some cherished beliefs of your audience.
A white paper I co-wrote for Verizon used this approach. This paper aimed to counter the half-truths being used to sell a major product from a competitor.
Any title about “myths” and “truths” will likely get noticed.
12. Compare/Contrast: Organize the material around a series of comparisons that show the differences between your offering and others.
If this sounds like something a college prof might ask you for, you’re right.
After all, I think of white papers as persuasive essays.
But that’s not all. This cool essay guide from “Mrs. Long” goes further, offering three different ways to compare and contrast:
- Block, where you first describe everything about one item, and then everything about another item
- Similarities-to-differences, where you first describe all the similarities between the two items, and then all the differences
- Point-by-point, where you describe one point of comparison between the items, and then the next down the list
That gives you some nice options for using this structure. Thank you, Mrs. Long.
13. Matrix: Use a 2X2 or larger table to organize a complex set of concepts into a format that’s easy to digest, easy to follow, and easy to remember.
In Presenting to Win, Weissman touches on the great power of tables to organize information.
A table can replace many words with a visual that’s far easier to absorb and recall.
I can’t recall an entire white paper I organized this way. But I certainly work to include tables whenever I can. And I highly recommend that you do the same.
A simple table can give readers a mental map that truly helps them to understand an issue or a market space. Once a reader gets it, this map is very hard for any other vendor to dislodge.
For a sample table, see How to write a white paper with Google Docs.
14. Parallel Tracks: Drills down into a series of related ideas, with an identical set of subsets for each idea.
This is something like using a table with the same rows for each column heading, or a database with the same categories for each item.
This could certainly work for a white paper.
15. Rhetorical Questions: Ask, then answer questions that are likely to be foremost in your audience’s minds.
This is likely to be packaged as a numbered list. In fact, it’s one of my favorite ways to do a white paper.
Sometimes these questions aren’t in your reader’s mind, but you can suggest that they should be.
Here’s a white paper I structured this way. It was intended to help dislodge entrenched POS repair services just when it was time to renew their annual service contracts.
We sought to plant a set of doubts in the minds of their clients.
And this paper brought up 7 probing questions to ask in a negotiation. My client makes analytics software to reveal what’s going on in a hospital in terms of procedures and profits.
This structure worked very well even for something that arcane.
16. Numerical: Enumerates a series of loosely connected ideas, facts, or arguments.
That’s a nice description of a numbered list, don’t you think?
I call this the “strawberry” flavor. It’s light and lively and melts in your mind.
For more about numbered lists, see this article.
I’ve written tons of white papers structured like this. Notice the two samples just above both use numbers in their titles.
Here’s another, which lists a set of queries for anyone about to sign on for business process improvement software or services.
This is intended to sow some Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt (FUD) before a prospect signs with the competition.
Mashing up two different types
Sometimes a paper will combine (or mash up) two different types. The ones that work together smoothly are a numbered list with either other types.
For example, this evaluation guide is a numbered list + features/benefits (backgrounder) all in one.
Notice how it describes a collection of features that are all present in the client’s software.
Structures 5, 9 and 16 are my three “classic” structures: a problem/solution, a backgrounder, and a numbered list. Several others represent a close approximation or mashup of these main types.
The only structure I question is number 10 for a case study—although this is fine in its own right for that type of document.
These structures should give you plenty of options to try as you plan your next presentation or white paper.
And don’t forget to pick up Weissman’s book Presenting to Win for more great tips on how to present your case effectively.
Which of these structures do you use most often? Can you think of any way to organize a white paper or presentation that’s not in this list? Please leave your comment below.
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