How NOT to Write a White Paper

New York Zoological Society - Picture on Early Office Museum Public Domain File:Monkey-typing.jpg Created: 1 January 1907

Your client has amassed a wealth of evidence in support of purchasing Solution A. The problem: you don’t offer Solution A. You have Solution B. You’re faced with having to engage the client in a dialogue about the results of their research and analysis (which speaks against your Solution B) to somehow steer them into reconsidering their impending decision.

You opt for what many B2B firms do in this situation: scramble to create some thought leadership that portrays your company and your products in the most attractive light possible, given the circumstances.

At this point, you recruit a few colleagues to launch a response –a white paper– the go-to format because, hey, it even sounds impressive.

Here’s what NOT to do.

Start with a tired metaphor

Relate every element of the client’s situation to some unoriginal and unentertaining other situation that conveys corporate inspiration. Classic example? The race car. Whether you go for Formula 1 or Nascar, it’s got all the elements of business imagery: competition, teamwork, engineering, high performance and so on. Because when clients look to solve real life business problems, they prefer to do so while imagining themselves as Speed Racer.

If you’re feeling more creative, reach for something more imaginative. If you’re offering cloud computing, why not a Jack and the Beanstalk metaphor? I’m sure there are clouds in that story. Even seemingly apt metaphors can be considered groan-worthy depending upon your audience. Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe’s efforts to revitalize Japan’s economy rely upon ‘three arrows’ which come from a folktale–variants of which are found throughout the region, sometimes replacing arrows with chopsticks.

If those are too mundane, aim for the non-sensical. I’ll never forget one piece that read ‘it remains to be seen whether the proposed regulations will become an all-singing all-dancing cabaret.’ Not particularly meaningful, but certainly memorable.

Stack the deck

The devil is in the details, so weigh them in your favor. Provide a perfunctory sketch of Solution A, then devote most of your time explaining the inner workings, advantages and benefits of Solution B. Yours will seem more tangible. Even better, introduce a few permutations of Solution B –let’s call them Solution C and Solution D– and then compare all four options. The amount of discussion dedicated to Solution A will shrink considerably. Whatever you do, avoid an apples-to-apples comparison of Solution A and Solution B. Switch out one of the apples for a banana, a pear and a kiwi.

Cloud the issue

Your client has set out a chain of logical steps supported by evidence that point them to a clear destination. Create diversions and set up ambushes at each step along the way. Plant a field of straw men. Pile irrelevant information and spurious relationships into a big, messy heap. Do anything you can to turn their road map into a jumbled maze. Put lots of focus on the least important elements–particularly if they play to your strengths.

Go on the offensive

You’ll want to put forward your own analysis–something that sounds good without committing to any claims that could be challenged. This will require you to stay vague. Couch any claims in broad generalities or use conditional language to deliver purely hypothetical scenarios. Imply unsubstantiated facts or buttress your own view with ‘common sense’ applied to a technical field where it likely doesn’t belong. Minimize the preponderance of quantitative evidence with infinitely sparse counterexamples to cast doubt on Solution A. Because even if the expected results have an incredibly high likelihood of occurring –let’s say 99.1%– there’s a miniscule chance — the remaining 0.9%– that something else happens; for example, that the results disappoint. Play to that uncertainty. If that doesn’t work, invent unlikely consequences of Solution A and embellish every gory detail. Remember, so long as you’re exploring hypothetical cases, you cannot be proven wrong.

Appeal to emotion, not reason

To the greatest extent possible, you’ll want to avoid precise construction of logical arguments. Since you won’t have numbers that speak in your favor, it’s best to hammer on emotional appeals. Wield flattery, indulge your audience’s overconfidence (e.g. how a large majority of people consider themselves better-than-average drivers which is statistically impossible), and then scare the daylights out of them with what could be the most effective emotion in B2B sales: FOMO, the fear of missing out. Remind your audience of all the theoretical benefits of your Solution B and how horrible it would be for them if someone else had them first. This plays to the herd mentality that underpins decision-making in more than a few sectors. Alternatively, exaggerate their initial acceptance of Solution A into a forever-binding, static commitment that locks them into an eternity of inflexibility and disadvantages galore. Or, on a lighter note, when possible create a ‘cool factor’ that makes your Solution B more awesome than Solution A.

Sell your product, not your ideas

You never want to miss an opportunity to sell. Your sales team will probably discuss this white paper with the client, so make sure to pack all the key features of your product(s) into the document AND talk about your firm’s capabilities. Make it all about you. Be sure to throw in the copy from your last ad campaign–because repetition is an effective tool. An effective tool. Repetition.

But seriously

Why would anyone write a white paper as disastrously described above? Good question. Unfortunately, plenty of firms cram (sometimes desperate) sales content into a white paper format and, in doing so, frustrate their clients. It doesn’t have to be this way. White papers and other thought leadership materials are meant for firms to demonstrate their expertise and help find solutions–not to sew confusion.

Tips to keep in mind when writing a white paper:

  • A tired metaphor shows lack of originality and can distract from the matter at hand.
  • Stacking the deck by skewing the arguments in your favor can stray too far from the objectivity required to match a business need to a solution.
  • Your audience expects clarity, so provide it. Clouding the issue undermines your apparent mastery of the topic and makes you less credible in their eyes.
  • Try to avoid emotional appeals (they’re cheap and difficult to fit into organizational decision-making), or at the very least, balance the rational and emotional appeals.
  • Avoid selling. Audiences will shout out commercial messages–particularly where they don’t belong.