Jonathan Kantor, author of Crafting White Paper 2.0: Designing Information for Today’s Time and Attention-Challenged Business Reader, is a strong spokesperson for the new and evolving white paper. He makes a clear case for three main points in his book:
- White papers are no longer plain text documents; they require well designed visual communication to engage readers.
- White papers are shrinking in size, with 6-8 pages being the optimal length.
- White papers must be written and designed for skim readers.
White papers are often described as a cross between an article and a brochure, which still works pretty well as a general description. However, Kantor cited the annual report as being analogous to the modern white paper. Annual reports incorporate design as part of the message. They also are predominantly fact-based documents like white papers.
For example, while white papers have typically used information graphics like charts and tables, now they’re using more photography and conceptual graphics to build reader affinity and illustrate key points in the problem-solution discussion. As a rule of thumb, Kantor advises that each page have more space devoted to text than graphics so as not to look like a brochure.
The reason for the shrinking white paper is obvious. Business readers at all levels are having to absorb and process a lot more information due to all the new information channels that we have. Kantor points out that people, especially busy executives, will skim new information for gleanings of relevance first. Only after a second light pass will a reader commit to comprehensive reading.
So in that first or second skim, white papers have to pull the reader in with visual signposts such as callouts, bullets, graphics, subheads, and summaries, as well as a succinct, benefit-laden title.
He also explains why executive summaries and concluding summaries are important. No longer than one page each, they are probably the first thing that the time-challenged reader will actually read. Next, people will read quotes and callouts, and then shaded text boxes. When you drive your point home and make a bottom-line statement, Kantor advises putting it in a shaded text box.
Throughout this book of short chapters, Kantor explains the why and the how of these techniques that make white papers easy to read and quickly assimilate. It’s chock full of checklists, guidelines, examples, and best practices. This very practical book is a quick, informative read, and a good reference for business writers or anyone who needs to write white papers.
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