Do you develop boring white papers? Nobody sets out to deliberately make their white papers dull, but that’s what happens far too often. Companies develop a white paper about an important issue in their industry, and while the white paper is factually correct, it’s even less interesting than watching paint dry.

Who writes boring white papers?

Frequently, boring white papers are developed by people who are not professional writers. Whether they’re engineers or lawyers, they’re extremely smart and well-informed people, but they really don’t know how to present the information in a compelling way. Most of the time, they fall back to the familiar style they learned in high school or college.

It’s not like English class

White papers serve a very different purpose than the research papers you wrote as a student, and the style of writing is nothing like the stuffy, formal approach taught in high school English and college Composition classes. Most students quickly learn to use a lot of big words and complex sentences in the hopes of impressing the professor and masking their ignorance.

But writing white papers isn’t about trying to impress strict English teachers or jaded Composition instructors. Writing white papers is about selling. Telling. Convincing. Entertaining. Emphasizing. Even infuriating. Doing that effectively demands copy that’s extraordinarily individual and personal. In fact, the more copy sounds like conversation, the more effective it tends to be.

Make white papers entertaining

Although white papers are factual documents, they don’t have to be written in a dry, serious style. In fact, the more entertaining the copy is in your white paper, the more likely people will take the time to read it. You don’t want it to sound as promotional as an ad or an email, but you don’t want it to be boring, either.

One way to keep white papers from being boring is to remember the power of storytelling. The human brain absolutely loves stories. We’re hardwired to respond to them, thanks to centuries of evolution. Long before someone came up with the idea for written language, our ancestors shared what they knew by telling stories.

People love stories

When we were kids, a good story was one of the few things that could get us to focus for any length of time. As adults, stories still capture our attention. We may call them by names like “gossip” and “conversation,” but as soon as someone begins to recount what happened last weekend when they went to paint the living room or teed up on that par-four 14th, we’re hooked.

Stories are always more compelling than raw facts. You can always list the reasons your product is better or your service is superior. But when you cast that information in the form of a story, you connect with your readers on an entirely different level and dramatically increase the likelihood that they’ll remember what’s really important. When you share a story, you’re entertaining your audience as you inform them.

Two approaches to stories

Two forms of stories are particularly effective in sales and marketing situations, such as with white papers. The first is the case study, in which you share a real-life example of how someone used your company’s product or service to solve a problem or improve a process.

Case studies are effective for two reasons. First, they make it easier for the reader to understand what makes your offering better and to apply the benefits to their own situation and challenges. Second, when a respected or well-known company appears in your case study, you benefit from their implicit endorsement.  (If Amalgamated Industries trusts your product, my company can buy it with confidence.)

The second form involves creating a story around a fictional example that represents the typical customer or user of what you offer. There’s nothing unethical about doing that, as long as you own up to the fact that it’s a fictional representation (or as long as you don’t create misleading quotes from imaginary customers). Even though the reader understands that your customer is fictional, she’ll still be able to relate to the story and the message you’re conveying.

Why white papers are misunderstood

Many white papers are written to explain the advantages their companies offer or to educate their stakeholders about situations or issues. All too often, those efforts fall short of their objectives. Their target audiences come away not knowing any more and the organization’s team has essentially wasted the time they spent writing.

A common reason that happens is because the white papers are written at the organization’s level of knowledge instead of the customer, prospect, or other stakeholder’s level. It’s what happens when we fail to recognize others may not know the same things we do.

The deadly imbalance of knowledge

Every society and organization needs smart people who have learned how to figure things out, and you see your white paper as serving that role. But that becomes problematic when there’s an imbalance in the knowledge level between the writer and the reader. Sometimes it’s an educational difference, but more often it’s a degree of awareness.

For example, if your white paper’s author is a highly trained graduate of one of Indiana’s many esteemed engineering programs, they might not realize the high school grad who worked into a supervisory role in the plant doesn’t share their deep background in metallurgy and physics. That supervisor could benefit from the information in the white paper, but quickly concludes the information is over their head. So what happens? First, they get frustrated and embarrassed. Second, they stop reading because they assume they won’t understand any of it.

Every profession, industry, and company has its own unique language shared among those within the profession, industry, or company. Using that language is okay when communicating with peers, but when the audience is an outsider, it’s going to be confusing at best and indecipherable at worst. Or, to put it another way, just plain boring.

Use familiar language

If the primary audience for your white paper is a group of university professors, you’ll want to make it more formal. But if you’re writing to industrial purchasing agents, your white paper should use the kind of language they use every day.

For example, it’s okay to use contractions (like “can’t” or “won’t”) because they keep copy talky and friendly. It’s also okay to start sentences with conjunctions like “and” or “but,” and to end them with prepositions. And while you learned not to use “you” when writing for school, using it in a white paper will make it seem more like a conversation you’re having with the reader.

Consider having your white paper rewritten by a pro

If one of your team members has developed a boring white paper, the easiest way to improve it is to have it rewritten by a professional writer who specializes in this type of writing. Not only do professional white paper writers have the skills to make your message clearer and more understandable, but their experience with other white papers allows them to convey your information in the most effective ways.

Professional writers can take a white paper written by non-writers and edit and polish it in far less time than it would take to write the white paper from scratch. Professionals can find and fix any errors and typos, and they can rework sentence structure and paragraphs to make them more cogent and compelling. Sometimes they may suggest reorganizing the white paper to present the material in a more logical fashion for people who don’t know it as well as you do.

You may be surprised at how affordable it can be to achieve dramatic improvements that meet your original objectives!