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White paper writer tip #4: Think visually

To create an effective white paper today, text alone doesn’t cut it.

Every white paper writer must be able to imagine powerful graphics to help tell their client’s story. 

Why? Because white papers are getting brighter, bolder, and more colorful. Great pictures and graphics are a must-have.

Colorful Eye
For best results, you must learn how to dream up images that communicate your key points at a glance.

Here are some tips on how white papers writers can think visually.

Visual thinking tip #1: Understand how our vision system works

More than 50% of the human cortex—the surface of the brain—is devoted to visual processing.* That’s why most people agree that sight is the most powerful sense.

Remember, the human species evolved as hunters/ gatherers who were also prey for larger carnivores and competing tribes.

Our survival was linked directly to how well we perceived the prey we were stalking or the predators sneaking up on us. Most researchers agree that motion is the first thing we see.

(That’s why any moving picture or animation has a magnetic pull on our eyes.)

After that most people notice color, shapes, and finally lines.

Our visual system works the same whether we’re scanning the landscape for danger or looking at a graphic in a white paper.

Our eyes and brains see instantly and holistically, meaning we pick up the big picture without any conscious effort.

Visual thinking tip #2: Give your reader the big picture

So if people can take in the big picture with no effort, why not give it to them?

After all, most white papers are supposed to help the reader understand an issue, or make a richer mental map of a certain market space.

As a white paper writer, it can help to sketch out the big picture you’re trying to convey.

Making a quick sketch can help you organize your thoughts, see patterns, map out relationships, and capture the essence of a white paper’s topic.

The key to creating a graphic is to stick to the main points and drop any fine details that take a lot of words to explain.

Simplify, simplify, and simplify some more.

Visual thinking tip #3: Don’t try to be neat

When you’re sketching out ideas, you don’t have to be neat about it.

Many ideas for new products or services have been sketched out on a scrap of napkin over lunch.

Inspiration concept crumpled paper light bulb metaphor for good idea

When you’re sketching, feel free to use whatever tool is at hand when inspiration hits:

  • Pencil on the back of an envelope
  • A nearby whiteboard
  • Shapes you arrange in PowerPoint
  • A drawing program like SmartDraw

Make a bunch of scribbles, and throw most of them in the recycling bin.

The point is to come up with one good visual idea that you can wrap your white paper around.

Visual thinking tip #4: Learn the different types of graphics

Just as there are many different forms of text, there are many different types of graphics.

For example, do you know what a swim lane diagram is? Or how to diagram a logical argument?

One fabulous source for different types of graphics is the Templates gallery from software-maker SmartDraw. This free catalog shows 30 different categories of graphics, with sub-categories and lots of different examples of each type.

If you’re scratching your head, wondering what type of graphic would work best in your white paper, you can quickly check out these free samples.

They should help you zero in on the type of graphic that communicates your material best.

Visual thinking tip #5: Use stock photo sites to search for ideas

In this blog, we always include a visual that illustrates the theme of each post.

Since our topics tend to be abstract, related to some aspect of B2B marketing, we often have to dream up a concrete metaphor.

photo of frustrated software user

Searching stock photo sites for an abstract idea turns up lots of visual concepts. Of course, most of them won’t work.

But sometimes we find a stock photo with a fresh approach we would never have dreamt up on our own.

By the way, one of the best-indexed sites we’ve found is, although their prices are not the best. The site we use most often is

For more on good stock photo sites, see our article.

Visual thinking tip #6: Consider converting your white paper to an infographic

Here’s a further benefit of thinking visually: You can propose creating the text for an infographic alongside your white paper.

For an extra fee, of course.

To do so, you will need to boil down all your research and arguments into 5 or 6 key points.

You will have to dream up one good metaphor that ties the whole argument together. This can be the same metaphor you use in the white paper, or something inherently more visual.

And you must keep your sources scrupulously organized, so you credit them properly in your infographic.

With a little practice, you can create wonderful graphics for your white papers… and work on exciting infographics that use your research in a more visual way.


Do you have any tips for thinking visually for a white paper? Please leave your comment below.


* The Mind’s Eye, Rochester Review, University of Rochester, March-April 2012

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About Gordon Graham

Worked on 300 white papers on everything from choosing enterprise software to designing virtual worlds for kids, for clients from Silicon Valley to Switzerland, from household names like Google and Verizon to tiny startups with big ideas. Wrote White Papers for Dummies which earned more than 50 5-star ratings on Amazon. And named 2019 Copywriter of the Year by AWAI, the world's leading training organization for professional copywriters.

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  1. Bob Bly on June 8, 2016 at 2:03 pm

    Funny that you cite Rochester Review. I get it, being a UR alum — 1979, BS, chemical engineering.

  2. Gordon Graham on June 8, 2016 at 2:52 pm

    Bob, you are likely one of the most accomplished grads of your alma mater.

  3. Sarah Greesonbach on June 9, 2016 at 2:14 pm

    Love this! Also makes a great case for visuals in downloadable course content and blog posts. White papers aren’t the only place where getting “the big picture” matters!

  4. White Paper WRITER (@Samwriterr) on October 8, 2016 at 7:41 pm

    Hi Gordon,
    My name is Samson. I love the post, it amazing and detailed.

    I am starting out in this industry as whitepaper writer. I do not have much experience though , but I am definitely well versed to excel in this field.

    One thing I have noted is that most B2B marketers disregard the role of white papers in increasing sales.

    After reading a few books in this field, i can now conclude that white papers boost sales up to 100%. In fact, most of the times , the customers will respond to white papers more than they do with product brochures.

    While there may be many whitepaper writers out there, I also think that one mistake white paper writers to is to over promote a product rather than to educate the reader, don’t you think?

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