More than 10 years ago, I came up with the three flavors of white papers:
- Vanilla for an old school product backgrounder
- Strawberry for a light-and-lively listicle
- Chocolate for an industry problem/solution
It’s a practical, memorable, sticky idea that has spread far and wide. (Many people arrive in my classes keen to hear all about ice cream.)
Then I extended the “ice cream” idea to mashing up flavors.
My concept was you could mix strawberry with either vanilla or chocolate. But don’t dare try to mix vanilla and chocolate!
That advice works fine for white papers
After all, it’s hard to shift from an industry-wide focus on a nagging problem (chocolate) to a deep dive into the features and benefits of one specific product (vanilla).
It’s better to split that content into two documents for people at two different points in their customer journey.
But that’s where the metaphor breaks.
And someone finally pointed that out.
That someone is John Cole, a former avionics system engineer turned copywriter.
He’s one of those unique engineers who actually likes writing and is very good at it.
He specializes in content strategy, case studies, and white papers.
John and I have exchanged some cordial e-mails, but we’ve never met in person since he lives in Italy (lucky!).
In his latest blog post, John discusses what he calls “hybrid” white papers.
And he zeroes in on the flaw in my ice cream metaphor.
“As someone who grew up eating Neapolitan ice cream, Good Humor bars, and vanilla ice cream with Hershey’s Syrup, I find this part of Graham’s analogy a bit hard to swallow,” he wrote.
“I mean, really, who believes chocolate and vanilla don’t go together?”
Whoops. He’s right. In the real world, vanilla and chocolate go together beautifully.
John proposes a new metaphor
His take is based on the four different types of human blood:
• Type O, the universal recipient that accepts any other type
• Type A and Type B that can’t mix
• Type AB, the universal donor that works with either A or B
Here is John’s rule of thumb for white paper “hybrids”:
“You can’t mix Type A blood (the problem/solution) and Type B blood (the backgrounder). But you can add Type AB blood (the numbered list) to either Type A or Type B.”
You know, that’s quite apt.
That works far better than my advice about not mixing chocolate and vanilla.
Am I sore? Not at all.
Are blood types better than ice cream flavors?
Most writers don’t realize this, but we can work with metaphors in a systematic way. We can compare and extend and brainstorm Big Ideas to make them stronger.
Their book explores six requirements of a sticky idea, with many well-researched anecdotes and insights.
If you haven’t read it, you’re in for a treat.
So I decided to test ice cream against blood types according to the criteria in their book. This table shows the results.
|Ice cream flavours||Blood types|
Ice cream edges out blood types on simplicity. Most people need a reminder about how the blood types work. But everyone knows ice cream.
Yet blood types are more scientific so how they mix seems more credible.
As for emotions and story, both can be spun out in gripping ways.
So it’s a close call, isn’t it?
The limits of metaphors
Any good white paper writer uses at least one good metaphor.
They’re handy to explain something new and strange by connecting it to something old and familiar.
Metaphors are great for giving someone a quick mental picture.
But a metaphor isn’t the real thing. It’s a mental construct, a visualization.
No metaphor can ever perfectly represent every aspect of anything else. Life’s too complex.
And here’s the thing: If you stretch any metaphor too far, it snaps.
So use metaphors wisely. And be humble when one of yours snaps back.
Another thing you can do is work out your metaphors systematically, and plan them out in advance.
Try not to mix too many metaphors in one piece… you want them to add clarity to your white paper, not create confusion.
And remember, whether you prefer blood type or ice cream flavor metaphors, you can use my three frameworks for white papers that work.