A white paper table of contents may be a useful addition to your technical white paper, especially if your white paper is lengthy and contains plenty of valuable content. White papers are typically substantially longer than blog posts, brochures, and other marketing communications channels. In fact, they can reach between 1500 and 5000 words in length, which usually equates to as many as 20 printed pages.

Because that’s a lot of written content for your target audience to consume, including a table of contents will make it easier for potential customers to access the information they need more easily, making your white paper a more valuable document.

Business white papers can be lengthy

There are many types of white paper examples, including the business white paper and research white papers. While the content is different for each, most are longer than other communications channels and use a similar white paper format.

Today’s target audience tends to be very busy, with little free time. A busy prospect may initially react to your entire white paper by deciding it’s too long to be worth investing the time to read and review it. There are two white paper elements that can help you overcome that:

  • Executive summary. The executive summary is a short condensation of the main messages of your white paper. A typical executive summary is one or two paragraphs long (rarely more than two) and includes the statement you set out to prove, the key arguments, and the conclusion. A reader who finds the executive summary interesting is more likely to read the entire white paper.
  • Table of contents. A table of contents, on the other hand, makes it easier for the reader to zero in on the issues and advice that are most important to them. When you have a table of contents on your cover page, readers can look at the topic and go directly to that section of your white paper.

What does a table of contents look like?

By its nature, a table of contents should be very brief. Instead of referencing every element or section of the white paper on the cover page, most of the time, the table of contents lists only the most important points. White paper examples of a table of contents may look like this technical white paper format comparing options for radish production:

  •             Introduction……………………………1
  •             Challenges with coring……………..…2
  •             Problems with traditional solutions.…..4
  •             Cross-cutting approaches………………6
  •             Spiral-coring alternatives……………..7
  •             An engineering comparison…………..8
  •             Aspects to consider……………………12

Better white paper navigation

The table of contents described above guides the reader through the lengthy white paper, making it easy for them to zero in on the information that’s most important to them. To be effective, the table of contents should provide a simple summary, because if it gets too long, it can become overwhelming.

Is there a better approach?

While a table of contents may be helpful, a strategy that makes even more sense is to build “navigation” into the white paper to guide the reader through the content. When I talk about navigation, I’m referring to the use of subheadings and bold lead-ins to summarize the content that follows.

People who create white papers (including me) would like to believe readers pay attention to every page and word of their white papers. But frankly, that’s not realistic, especially in an era in which we’re overwhelmed with information and get much of what we know through sources like a social media post. Today, most of us read by skimming through documents like white papers, pausing to read only when we see things that are particularly interesting to us. When you add navigation to your white paper format, you recognize that reality … and you use it to your advantage.

Design elements for white paper format

There really isn’t a standard document format for white papers like there is with some other kinds of documents such as papers summarizing external research. But there are several design elements you can use when you write a white paper that will help it do a better job of communicating with your readers. Let’s look at these elements and see how they might be incorporated into your organization’s white paper templates.

Enhancing white paper readability

A common mistake designers (especially young designers) make when preparing white papers is forgetting that many of the people who will read them are old enough to wear bifocals. Their work may be visually pleasing, but anyone who’s made it to their mid-forties may find it so difficult to read that they don’t bother.

Enhancing white paper readability begins with type choices. Instead of using the latest and most fashionable typefaces (fonts), it’s better to build your white paper structure by using the most readable typefaces. these tend to be some of the most familiar, particularly when used in body copy. Serif faces like Times, Palatino, Century, Garamond and Goudy are much easier on the eye, especially in long text.

Choosing the right type size and leading

When determining type size, never go with anything smaller than 10-point type, because it’s too hard to read. With most typefaces, 11-point body text works just fine. Another way to enhance readability is to increase the leading (spacing) between lines of text. Using leading that’s at least 25 percent more than type size can do wonders. So if you’re using 11-point text, make sure your leading is at least 14 points.

Incorporate visual cues in your white paper outline

Indenting paragraphs may seem boringly old-fashioned, but older readers have read that way since childhood. By using indentation, along with subheads, bold lead-ins, bullet points, and similar devices, your white paper format will guide the reader’s eyes and make the hierarchy of information clearer.

Avoid “reverse” type

Reversing type (what using light-colored type on a dark background is called) may be visually striking, but it’s effective only when it’s readable. If you’re going to use reverse type, it’s generally a good idea to increase the type size by a point or two. And while serif type is normally more readable when printed in a darker color, sans serif typefaces tend to provide better results when reversed.

Shoot for clear color contrasts

Make sure the type and the background have enough contrast so the type is clearly readable. When placing two colors side-by-side, watch the contrast, too. As people age, their eyes find it more difficult to perceive subtle differences in color. Certain light colors – such as very pale yellow or pink – may actually appear to be white to older eyes. If you use a light yellow background on a dull white paper stock, the reader may not even notice it.

Protect white space

Not only does healthy use of white space keep information organized and presentable, it can reduce visual fatigue. That’s why you should resist the urge to fill any white space with more text, logos, or other images. White space isn’t “wasted” space … it’s a key white paper navigation tool!

Creating your white paper template

If your company performs white paper marketing or produces white papers as part of your communications strategy or to demonstrate your company’s expertise, it’s a good idea to develop a standard white paper template. That way, your sales and marketing teams will have a better sense of how to approach your white papers.

Some people claim that white papers have to be in a certain format, but that isn’t true. There are any number of formats that may be appropriate for a white paper. In this post, I’ll outline a white paper format I’ve used for a number of different types of companies. You don’t have to follow such white papers examples exactly, but they can provide guidance for developing your own white paper templates.

Choose the right title

Your white paper’s title is particularly important. It should be serious and straightforward, not clever or promotional. In a product brochure, you might use a headline such as “Process three times as many radishes with our veeblefetzers,” but something that promotional won’t appeal to someone looking for objective information. Titles such as “Evaluating processing alternatives for radish production” or “Cross-cutting and spiral-coring: an engineering comparison” will suggest your white paper is presenting a more balanced approach.

Begin with the problem

It’s likely that you’re writing the white paper to address a problem or a challenge faced by your customers or another target audience. A great way to reinforce that and draw the target audience into the white paper is to describe that problem or challenge in familiar language. That immediately informs the reader you understand the issue they are facing, and that reading your white paper will be beneficial.

Discuss various ideas

Next, review the various solutions that have been developed to address the problem or challenge. It’s wise to provide an in-depth report exploring the advantages and disadvantages of each. An honest appraisal of other approaches — even if it involves saying nice things about your competition – will build credibility in your message and lend credence to the case you’ll make for your product or point of view. Focusing on facts will make your message more believable.

Suppose your product is a car wash detergent that produces more suds because of an added chemical that softens the water. Instead of mentioning your product by name at this point or pointing to its superiority, you might say something like: “One approach that has been successful is to blend in small amounts of specific chemicals that reduce the natural hardness of the water. Water hardness interferes with the effectiveness of detergents, and this approach reduces the hardness, so the detergents can produce a higher level of suds.” Rather than promote your product, you’re simply stating the facts, which provides greater credibility for your message.

Don’t get promotional

When you develop a web page, an ad, or a sales email, you likely choose language that’s highly promotional. That kind of messaging is inappropriate for white papers, because it interferes with the impression of objectivity you’re trying to promote.

Instead of talking about how much better your product is, consider summarizing by pointing out its advantages in general terms, such as: “Car wash operators have found the use of water softening agents can dramatically increase the suds produced by each gallon of water, allowing them to wash the same number of vehicles with less water and detergent.”

Then, in the next paragraph, you can mention — just mention — the fact your product uses that superior approach, as in: “The evidence from research is what let Amalgamated Industries to incorporate softening agents into the formulation of Sudzo Car Wash Detergent.” No sales pitch, no flowery language — just an explanation allowing the reader to draw their own conclusion based upon the evidence you’ve provided in your written content.

Nor should you use a white paper to brag about your company and its history. A brief mention, such as “Since 1923, Amalgamated Industries has been at the forefront of car wash innovation” is really all you need.

Add sidebars and charts

To highlight a particular concept or include something that’s interesting to the reader but may not fit within the body of the white paper, consider placing it in a “sidebar.” Sidebars are smaller articles, text boxes, or lists that are separate from the main copy. They’re also a good place for charts, tables, or other forms of data visualization. They add visual interest, drawing the reader’s eye and helping them increase their knowledge.

How long should my white paper be?

White papers tend to be much longer than other communications tools such as brochures and blog posts. A typical blog post these days is 600 to 800 words long, but as we noted earlier, , white papers can reach between 1500 and 5000 words in length (the equivalent of as many as 20 printed pages). You shouldn’t start the white paper process by deciding how long the white paper should be. The amount and quality of the information should drive the length, instead of any arbitrary guidelines.