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6 more deadly diseases of white papers

A previous article looked at six germs that afflict the format of a white paper.

Now let’s look at six more diseases that can eat away at the content of your white papers.
doctor with pillsThese six diseases are just as dangerous—perhaps even more so—than the previous ones.But fortunately, if you identify them in time, you can save your white paper from a fate worse than death.

That, of course, is the awful fate of being completely ignored by your target audience.

No one wants their white paper to end up like that.

White paper disease #7:
Sales pitch in disguise?!

This is the single worst practice in white papers today.

Executives from white paper syndication services and many surveys agree: Readers hate sales pitches.

Readers expect a white paper to inform or enlighten by providing useful information that helps them on the job.

Jumping into a sales pitch will irritate anyone who expected helpful, objective information. It can even kill your chance of staying on their vendor list.

So if you’re writing a brochure, call it a brochure, don’t call it a white paper! If you’re writing a sales letter, don’t call it a white paper!

Don’t let ad copy and marketing-speak contaminate your white paper; the results will be unhealthy.

White paper disease #8:
Not enough, unclear, or unprofessional graphics

Every white paper needs at least one graphic that sums up its key points.

Nearly everyone understands pictures faster and remembers them better.

And don’t use the first graphic someone dumps on your desk. Plan to edit and polish any illustrations.

Avoid cheesy clip art. Forget photos of happy faces around gleaming boardroom tables. Simplify lines and boxes flying off in all directions, the way most engineers sketch. Redo tired PowerPoints.

Then test out each graphic on a few people in your target audience. If they don’t get it, back to the drawing board.

Another approach is to give rough illustrations to a professional artist and have them clean up your graphics for you.

If budget is an issue, check out these two sources for low-cost but highly professional graphics.

The health of your white paper hangs in the balance.

White paper disease #9:
Too much hype, too little evidence

Just because your CEO says something is true and you dutifully write it down, that doesn’t mean anyone else will believe it.

A white paper needs to build a solid case with concrete evidence: facts, figures, names, dates, places, statistics from impeccable sources, quotes from industry experts and stories from ecstatic clients.

Without strong evidence arrayed in a logical structure, your argument is nothing but recirculated hot air, laden with germs.

White paper disease #10:
Poor flow of ideas or logic

There are tried-and-true rhetorical methods for building an argument. For instance:

Start with the familiar and link to the unfamiliar.

Start with the past, describe the present and project into the future.

Start with an overview and drill down to the details.

Start at the beginning of a process and trace the way to the end.

Whatever you do, find an appropriate logical structure and then stick to it throughout your white paper.

If you skip around with no overall design, many readers will not follow what you’re saying.

White paper disease #11:
Undefined terms and acronyms

No one likes TLA that MTFD. In other words, Three Letter Acronyms that Make Them Feel Dumb.

You don’t have to define terms like RAM or MPG if they’re well-known to your audience.

You do need to define any company-specific terms, or unusual acronyms that your audience may not know.

Otherwise, this disease will have your white paper gasping for breath.

White paper disease #12:
Unprofessional writing or editing

It’s okay for a product manager or developer to jot down some notes for a white paper.

But then, you owe it to yourself to find a professional writer or editor to polish up that text. They can be from your own company, or from an outside firm.

If you don’t, you can easily publish something that reflects poorly on your company… and something that won’t persuade any prospects.

Don’t let this disease pickle the innards of a white paper that you need to get results.

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About Gordon Graham

Worked on 320+ white papers for clients from Silicon Valley to Switzerland, on everything from choosing enterprise software to designing virtual worlds for kids, for clients from tiny startups to 3M, Google, and Verizon. Wrote White Papers for Dummies which earned 60+ 5-star ratings on Amazon. Won 16 awards from the Society for Technical Communication. Named AWAI 2019 Copywriter of the Year.

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