Too many white papers suffer from what I call “throat-clearing.”
That’s when a paper begins by repeating something the audience already knows.
Consider this example from a white paper from HP:
Rapid innovations in Internet and mobile computing technology are drawing many communications, media, and entertainment (ME) companies to expand into profitable new markets to satisfy consumers’ growing appetites for digital content and web-based services.
Assuming you can parse that run-on sentence without falling into a stupor, who could disagree?
But what does that add to the paper?
Journalists call this “burying the lead”—not starting at the real start of the story.
Sure, get warmed up… then delete the throat-clearing
Many writers get warmed up by jotting down a few well-known statements.
These often include a generic comment on the state of the economy or a certain market space.
It’s okay to get warmed up in your first draft. But I suggest cutting out the throat-clearing as soon as you notice it.
Find the point where you say something new and unexpected, and start your white paper there.
A real-world example
Here’s an extended example of throat-clearing I came across in a report on how people feel about AI.
Published by Gallup and a branch of the insurer Lloyd’s of London, this report draws on surveys from all over the globe.
Originally from 2021, this is being updated for 2024.
And it’s pretty interesting once you get into it.
But they don’t make that easy.
That’s because this report starts with a rousing chorus of throat-clearing.
To view the Preface and see what I’m talking about, click the thumbnail.
Here’s the first sentence:
“We live in an age of rapid advancements in digital technology and interconnectivity.”
Sure. But this is so obvious it goes without saying.
Did we mention that horse-drawn buggies have been replaced by cars?
Next sentence: “This rapid change was accelerated by the Covid-19 pandemic, which pushed more people and activities online.”
Again, no argument. But why tell me something I know?
Third sentence: “These advances have demonstrated great value and offer opportunities to drive economic growth and higher living standards globally.”
Oh no, my eyes are starting to glaze over.
The next sentence talks about “existing inequities” without defining what that means.
And finally, we’re treated to two paragraphs that recap the foundation’s mission and why they do these reports.
Sure, this should be included somewhere. Why not in a section called About Lloyd’s Register Foundation at the back?
In the download, I redlined the first 170 words—half the page—to show everything I consider throat-clearing.
The Preface finally gets down to business in the fourth paragraph:
“This report focuses on two main areas…”
But I think that’s too little, too late.
By then, any reasonable reader has skipped on to the next screen. Wouldn’t you?
The real danger of throat-clearing
When you indulge in throat-clearing, you throw away your best chance to engage a reader.
You start your piece with bland, boring nothingness.
You force your readers to ride along as you get your thinking in gear and drive through the same old back roads they’ve seen a thousand times before.
Instead, why not treat them to a brisk, refreshing view of something new on the landscape?
Start your piece in top gear, and give your readers a ride they’ll remember.
Remember: To get people’s attention, show them something new.
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