White paper readers rarely take the time to carefully read every word of a white paper, even though that’s what the authors of white papers wish they would do. It isn’t that white paper readers don’t care about the information that can be found in the papers. Instead, it’s about the reality that everyone is busier than ever, and the various forms of media we encounter each day come at us with greater intensity.
What makes white paper readers skimmers
Since we rarely have as much time as we’d like to read white papers and other printed and online materials, we tend to skim through them. We read headlines and subheadings and glance at the opening lines of paragraphs. If something catches our eye — such as a paragraph that looks particularly interesting — we’ll take a closer look and may even read the entire paragraph. But if we don’t see something that motivates us to dig more deeply, we’ll race on to the next subheading or paragraph.
Catering to white paper readers who are skimmers
The fact that most white paper readers who will pick up your white paper are likely to be skimmers shouldn’t make you throw your hands up in frustration and despair. It doesn’t mean those readers don’t care what your paper has to say. It just means they are unlikely to read it word-for-word. If you keep that simple fact in mind when writing your white paper, you can take several steps to help those skimmers zero in on what’s most important to them.
Creating navigation for white paper skimmers
The most important thing you can do to connect with skimmers who pick up your white paper is to write and design it with what we call “navigation.” That’s the term we give to visual cues that cater to the skimmers who read your white paper. These include subheadings and bold lead-ins at the start of paragraphs. These devices offer insight into or a summary of what follows. Because they have a different appearance than the body text, readers’ eyes are drawn to them.
Make opening sentences count
As you develop the body text for your white paper, make sure each paragraph’s opening sentence conveys an important message, because many skimmers simply read each opening sentence. If the key message you intend to convey in the paragraph is the superiority of your technology, don’t lead with something vague like “There are many technologies, but all are not equally effective.” Instead, shoot for something like “Our laser-cut radish cutters over several advantages over competitors’ technologies.” That way, someone who reads only the first line comes away with the message.
Consider using a table of contents
If your white paper is lengthy, including a table of contents at the beginning can make it easier for readers who are skimmers to get to the content that’s most important to them more quickly. You don’t need to include a detailed table of contents. Most often a simple, high-level listing of topics will guide the reader to what they want to know. They may not read as much of your white paper, but they’ll pay attention to the sections that are most relevant for them and that’s the important thing.
Skimmers can make you a better writer
Developing your white paper with the goal of engaging and communicating with skimmers can make you a more effective white paper writer. For one thing, it forces you to organize your thoughts before you start putting words on paper. It also tend to make the flow of your white paper more logical and normal. Because you’ll think more carefully about how to word subheadings and lead-ins, you’ll also make the most of every word. Efficiency is a sign of better writing … and it suggests you and your company are well-organized.